Study Finds High Rates of Illness Among D.C. Black Women

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Black women in the District suffer from obesity, diabetes, heart disease and generally poor health in alarmingly high numbers, and white women do not.

That is the finding of a study released early today by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The study said there is a large disparity in the incidence of certain chronic diseases between black and white women.

Kaiser's study was based on data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal Current Population Survey from 2004 to 2006. The study reflected health statistics in the states and the District.

In the District, the study also found wide gaps between black and white women in the incidence of other illnesses such as cancer and HIV and AIDS. According to the study, black women's poor health is tied to low education, poverty, unemployment, stress, bad living conditions and poor health care coverage.

Black women's health in the District also compared unfavorably with that of other minority women. According to the study, 36 percent of black women were overweight or obese, compared with about 10 percent of Hispanic and Asian women in the city. More than 7 percent of black women suffered from diabetes, compared with 2 percent of Hispanic women and 3 percent of Asian women. Fewer than 1 percent of white women suffered from diabetes, and 7 percent were overweight or obese.

"Black women in the District are really struggling," said Cara James, a senior policy analyst at Kaiser and the study's lead author. "This is a chronic condition that we know is related to poverty and the availability of nutritious food and the opportunity to exercise."

Personal responsibility among black women is an issue, but so is the government's responsibility to "make sure that people understand the importance of exercising and doing exercise and also to make sure that neighborhoods are safe to walk," James said.

A quarter of black women in the District live below the poverty line, defined as an income of $19,000 a year for a family of four at the time of the study. About 14 percent of black women in the city had no high school diploma, one of the lowest percentages in the Washington area.

James acknowledged that comparing black women's health with white women's health in the District is somewhat unfair, as the city's white women tend to be among the healthiest and wealthiest in the nation -- "the valedictorians of the class" when it comes to health, James said.

In Maryland and Virginia, disparities between black women and white women were narrower. In Maryland, 37 percent of black women were overweight or obese, compared with 21 percent of white women, according to the study. In Virginia, the rate was 36 percent for black women and 17 percent for white women.

The disparity between black and white women for diabetes was also narrower in the neighboring states than in the District, as was the cancer mortality rate. In the District, the cancer mortality rate was 204 per 100,000 black women and 137 per 100,000 white women. In Maryland, the cancer mortality rate was 191 per 100,000 black women and 166 per 100,000 white women. In Virginia, the cancer mortality disparity was slightly greater than in Maryland.

In the District, the incidence of new HIV/AIDS infections for black women -- 176 per 100,000 -- was far larger than for any other group of women. The rate for Hispanic women was 48 per 100,000, according to the study.

A D.C. government study this year said the city's overall AIDS prevalence rate was 3 percent, the highest in the nation. In Virginia, the rate is 31 per 100,000, and in Maryland, the rate is 68 per 100,000.

The District's health director, Pierre Vigilance, said the city is working to address the disparities.

"We understand that health disparities cut across different lines -- race, socioeconomic status -- and it's unfortunate that we're in a district where the burden of those problems are borne out more," Vigilance said. "We've been doing more to look at how to address access to more health care for women, and especially mothers."

James said the District should be credited with those efforts. "D.C. has done a good job with lowering disparities in health coverage," she said. "But it's not sufficient to eliminate disparities."

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