While most Metro riders in the Washington area are preoccupied with their books and smartphones, my mind always seems to wander, wondering how many fellow riders live the statistics that fuel health disparities reports.
For me, the first three out of 100 people I see on Metro represent the 3 percent of people who have HIV. By the time I get to 12 people, I know that about 25 percent are walking statistics who don’t know their HIV status.
I’m inundated by these issues because I write and report about health for the federal Office of Minority Health Resource Center. So thoughts of disproportionately high blood pressure, diabetes and HIV/AIDS rates among racial and ethnic minorities are usually at the forefront of my mind.
While the situation of minority health can often seem dire and overwhelming, action always trumps standing around and pointing fingers. That’s why the Office of Minority Health designates April as National Minority Health Month. The goal isn’t to have health experts tell people what they need to do, but to give everyone an opportunity to know more about health disparities and then put what they know into action.
This Saturday the agency will host community health events nationwide for a coordinated Health Equity Day of Action. In the District, residents will have a chance to participate in health screenings, wellness talks, cooking demos and a Zumba-thon at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights.
The events will give an opportunity to take a hard look at health disparities in minority communities. For instance, blacks make up 34 percent of the people on the waiting list to receive a kidney transplant. But the percentage of registered minority donors doesn’t keep pace with the number of candidates awaiting a transplant.
Meanwhile, racial and ethnic minorities are three times more likely than whites to have kidney disease. American Indians are four times more likely than whites to experience diabetes. The statistics aren’t any more promising in the areas of oral health, obesity or youth violence.
These disparities are only worsened by repetitive bad behavior such as smoking, excessive alcohol use, a poor diet or lack of exercise. Unsafe neighborhoods that hinder exercise, a lack of health insurance, and misunderstood cultural nuances also lead to poor health outcomes.
Although there are many factors contributing to poor health, including a history of injustices and legacies of ongoing discrimination, taking a first step toward a healthier life is better than settling into lifelong categories of sickness and disease. That one step can serve as a launching pad to a life of better health. Like most things of value, closing the health disparities gap to create equity will probably take a lot of work every single day, from everyone involved.
But it’s worth it, for our future, for our nation, for the people we sit next to and walk past on a daily basis. The truth is, we just have to start our day determined to do our best for that day. Then the following day we’ve got to get up and do it again, remembering that the statistics we read about are real people. Because, as one of my co-workers likes to remind me, if not now, when?
Fia Curley is the writer/editor for the Office of Minority Health Resource Center and believes health equity is an achievable goal.
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