When Dr. Chris Landon looks at the boundaries of Oxnard's recently imposed gang injunction, he sees the outlines of a health crisis.
Already, the Ventura doctor has seen a high incidence of childhood asthma in the same area mapped by police as a gang zone. And he suspects that other health threats, such as childhood obesity, could be lurking there as well.
He believes the problems are linked, at least in part, to a reluctance by parents to let children go outdoors for fear of neighborhood violence. Landon sees the gang injunction as a positive force, one that ultimately could improve the health and welfare of youngsters in some of Oxnard's poorest and meanest neighborhoods.
"I see this as a blueprint for providing the things that children need," said Landon, whose Ventura-based pediatric foundation has launched several health initiatives in the 6.6-square-mile safety zone established by police to combat gang violence.
"We need to increase outdoor activity, increase access to medical care and access to education," Landon added. "We're talking about letting people feel safe about their neighborhoods, safe about walking to the store, safe about going to the park. That's going to make a difference not just in their social health but in their physical health too."
Physicians and researchers are starting to take a closer look at the link between community violence and children's health.
A number of studies already point to a connection between exposure to violence and childhood psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. And there is ongoing work to examine the tie between high-crime communities and physical disease, said Dr. Rosalind J. Wright, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Wright co-wrote a study published in April in the American Journal of Public Health that explores the link between violence in poor metropolitan areas and asthma.
"Violence exposure, unfortunately, is a pervasive fact of life in many inner-city communities in this country," Wright said. "Living with violence not only impacts mental health but has now been tied to physical health."
Dr. Howard Spivak, director of the Center for Children at Tufts University and chairman of the Youth Violence Taskforce for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said it's well-known that communities with the highest health risks tend to be crowded, urban and poor. In that light, he said, it stands to reason that violence would also play a role.
"It wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to find health issues that are significantly affected by the presence or prevalence of violence in the community," Spivak said. "The impact of stress around violence and the fear of violence must be taking their toll."
Those health issues could manifest themselves in various ways, physicians said.
The stress of living amid violence could by itself be enough to trigger health problems. People in high-crime areas may fail more often to keep medical appointments or follow prescribed exercise programs. And the fear of violence could lead parents to keep children indoors longer, lulling youngsters into a sedentary lifestyle that increases the risk of obesity or exposes asthma sufferers to harmful mold and dust.
Until she moved out of Oxnard's gang-plagued La Colonia neighborhood last year, Maria Silva said she had been afraid to let her 3-year-old son, Joel, play outside because of the threat of violence. Then she learned that keeping him indoors was probably triggering his asthma and allergies.
She moved to another part of the city where violence wasn't as pervasive.
"I think it was bad for him," Silva said of keeping Joel cooped up. "Now, I think he's better. He gets to go out all the time and run around like children should."
Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez wasn't looking to address a health crisis when he and others proposed a court injunction to combat Ventura County's largest and most violent street gang.
The injunction, granted in June on a preliminary basis, bars members of the Colonia Chiques from congregating in public within a 6.6-square-mile area that includes the Colonia district.
Lopez said he had never given any thought to the injunction's potential health benefits until last week, when he saw a map produced by Landon showing roughly 600 asthma patients living in or near the safety zone. The majority of those cases were concentrated in the Colonia area, where authorities have documented hundreds of gang crimes.
Lopez said he wanted to look more closely at the connection and perhaps even work with Landon to address the health concerns.
"It was almost scary, the connection between the two," Lopez said. "I think it proves our original premise, that people are afraid to go outdoors as a result of gang activity in their community."
At the Landon Pediatric Foundation, doctors view the gang injunction as an opportunity to create a "kid zone" where doctors and others can treat a range of childhood health issues.