Combat African-American health crisis with prevention

October 22, 2003|By Dr. Michelle A. Gourdine

AFRICAN-AMERICAN health is at a crisis point. Tens of thousands of African-Americans die each year from health problems that could be prevented, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

For decades, blacks have fought for equality. Progress has been made in decreasing social, economic, educational and political disparities. Unfortunately, the same strides have not been made in health.

Despite notable gains in the overall health status of Americans in this century, a significant public health problem still remains: the racial disparity in health status between blacks and whites.

Comparatively speaking, according to the National Center for Health Statistics:

Black males live 6.6 years less than white males.

Black females live 5.1 years less than white females.

Black babies are more than twice as likely as white babies to die in the first year of life.

Blacks are 50 percent more likely to have diabetes than whites.

One of every three blacks has high blood pressure, and blacks develop high blood pressure at an earlier age than whites.

Blacks are more likely to die of heart disease than whites.

Blacks are at higher risk for stroke than whites.

Blacks are more likely to die of cancer than whites.

Blacks account for about 35 percent of HIV cases, despite making up only 12 percent of the U.S. population.

As director of the Baltimore County Department of Health for the past eight years, and as a black physician, I know firsthand that blacks are dying earlier and suffering from chronic diseases disproportionately. Many of today's leading causes of premature disability and death are preventable. This is especially true in the black community.

While conditions such as SARS and West Nile virus have generated a great deal of public interest and action, these diseases killed far fewer people than the tens of thousands of blacks who die each year from preventable causes. It is time for the health crisis in the black community to generate public concern and action. We can start by getting regular preventive health care and encouraging our family members to do so.

Our health history is bleak. But our future does not have to be that way. We can and we must take charge of our health and the health of our families. The time has come to make better health a lifelong commitment in the black community.

Dr. Michelle A. Gourdine is health officer and director of the Baltimore County Department of Health.

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