AUSTIN (KXAN) – Researchers have long known that Black and Hispanic children are much more likely than White children to have exacerbations of asthma that result in emergency room visits but they haven’t known why. 

A team of researchers at UT Austin published a new study in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology which gets us closer to understanding this racial disparity. 

“We’ve recognized these disparities for decades, and we haven’t made a dent in them,” said Dr. Elizabeth Matsui, Professor of Pediatrics & Population Health Dell Medical School. “We can’t do something about it until we kind of know what the underlying causes are.”

Matsui and her team compared emergency department visit rates associated with asthma in Black, Hispanic and White children living in Travis County before, during and after COVID-19 prevention efforts went into effect.

While social distancing measures were in place, there was a reduction in the spread of respiratory viruses, such as the common cold. The researchers found that during this time, the number of asthma-related emergency room visits also dropped. 

Black kids are usually seven times more likely than White kids to go to the emergency room for asthma-related complications. During the pandemic mitigation efforts, the researchers found that this disparity dropped to around twice as likely. 

“So that’s a piece of evidence that there may be something different that makes kids of color more likely to either be exposed to viruses and therefore be infected, or other factors that might make them more vulnerable to viral infections,” Matsui said. 

Next, Matsui and her team are hoping to investigate the root causes of why Black and Hispanic kids are more likely to be exposed to respiratory viruses. 

“There are a lot of reasons why kids of color could be more likely to get infected,” Matsui said. “Things like crowded housing related to poverty, crowded schools related to [poorer] neighborhoods,” she said. 

It could also be that these families include more frontline workers who interact more often with the general population. This may lead to an increased likelihood of contracting a viral infection and bringing it home. Further, Matsui said communities of color are exposed more to outdoor air pollution, which can increase a child’s risk of getting sick with a viral infection.

Matsui said this research is important because if scientists understand the root causes of these health disparities, their research can inform policy decisions to reduce them. 

“We have to move beyond measuring the disparities and saying, ‘OK, we know they’re there,’ to really doing something about it.”