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The North Country Asthma Coalition is handing out a dozen $1,700 devices, called spirometers, to make diagnosing and tracking the health of young asthma sufferers as simple as whistling.

As Lauren Bacall spelled out in the movie, "To Have and Have Not," to an incredulous Humphrey Bogart: "You just put your lips together and blow."

Set up three years ago by the American Lung Association with a grant from the state Department of Health, the coalition works to educate the public about asthma and help medical professionals provide the best treatment.

The coalition focuses on children and has given 11 spirometers to pediatric practices, family health centers and school-based health centers.

The 12th device will go this year to the health center run by Glens Falls Hospital in the Whitehall school district, where Madeleine Doane, a physician's assistant, works full time treating students.

"We see a lot of kids with asthma," she said. "And we try to follow them closely."

The spirometer, which gives precise readings of patients' lung function, will allow Doane to keep even more careful track of asthmatic students' health.

Patients use the spirometer by blowing into a mouthpiece.

The spirometers purchased by the asthma coalition can be hooked up to a laptop computer that will show, as the patient blows, a picture of a child blowing up a balloon. The visual aid encourages young children to blow long and hard enough to get a useful reading.

Director Marcie Hankinson recently moved the coalition's office from downtown Glens Falls into her house in Saratoga Springs to save money.

The coalition's grant, originally worth about $185,000 a year, was cut last fall to about $177,000.

The five-year grant runs through 2010, Hankinson said, but the coalition is applying for a renewal and is confident its work is necessary and will be funded.

"We're confident it will be approved," she said. "The stats are there to support it."

At just one practice the coalition is working with - Glens Falls Pediatrics - at least 100 kids from ages 12 to 14 have what the coalition defines as "uncontrolled" asthma, she said.

The coalition considers asthma uncontrolled when the child has been forced by an asthma attack to make an unscheduled visit to the doctor or the emergency room at least once in the past year.

Asthma afflicts many children, in cases ranging from serious to mild, but even mild asthma can be fatal, Hankinson said.

Often, she said, deaths from asthma hit those with mild cases, because they and their families are less vigilant about watching for warning signs. An untreated asthma attack can quickly become dangerous.

Nationwide, she said, the incidence of asthma has been rising in recent decades.

Air quality is a factor in asthma, Hankinson said, and so are building construction techniques. Because new houses are much tighter and energy-efficient, they allow less air exchange with the outside. The lack of fresh air can aggravate asthma.

When the coalition's grant was reduced, Hankinson said, she preferred switching to a home office to cutting education programs or equipment purchases.

Along with buying and distributing the spirometers, the coalition is giving intensive asthma training to public health nurses in six counties - Franklin, Warren, Washington, Hamilton, Clinton and Essex.

And the coalition hired Trampoline Design of Glens Falls to come up with a marketing strategy to boost asthma awareness.

Trampoline came up with a Dr. Seuss-inspired educational campaign called "Ease your Wheeze!" and had giant-sized inhalers made to hold brochures.

The inhaler displays have already been mounted at 15 sites, such as county public health offices and Head Start buildings, and about 20 more will be put up.

Trina Poland, production coordinator for Trampoline Design, came up with the "Ease your Wheeze!" slogan and wrote Dr. Seuss-style poems for the brochures and print ads promoting asthma awareness and prevention.

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