Minority health gaps in Ohio must be closed

“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane.”

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., March 1966

Fifty-eight years ago last month, the father of America’s civil-rights movement duly lashed out at the widening health gap between white Americans and minorities. Though not as brutal in those days as the billy clubs and attack dogs used to stifle discontent, the long-term pain of inaccessibility to basic health care dealt a harsh blow to the quality of life of blacks and other minorities. It also contributed significantly to the great divide between America’s haves and have-nots.

Two decades later in 1985, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released its landmark report, the Secretary’s Task Force Report on Black and Minority Health, better known as The Heckler Report. It reinforced King’s angst by documenting the prevalence of health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. It called such disparities “an affront both to our ideals and to the ongoing genius of American medicine.”

Today, improvements in technology, standards of living and access to health care have begun to narrow those once colossal gaps. Nonetheless, health inequities remain a stain on our nation. Those disparities, while narrowing, remain substantial.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans have a 200% greater likelihood of dying from asthma, a 250% greater chance of dying during pregnancy, 900% greater risk of dying from HIV/AIDS and a 200% greater likelihood of dying from cervical or prostate cancer than do white Americans.

Close to home in Ohio, black infants are 2.7 times more likely to die than white infants in their first year of life. The rate of perinatal infant mortality (death before seven days old) is even more shocking with white infants dying at a rate of 7.2 per 1,000 live births and the black rate at 32.1, according to Ohio Department of Health data from 2021.

Locally, Mahoning and Trumbull counties both received grades of “F” from the March of Dimes report for pre-term births in 2023, noting the condition has worsened.

And though the wide gap between black and white life expectancy has narrowed in many parts of the nation, blacks in general today can expect to live four fewer years than whites, CDC reports.

Other minority groups face disparities as well. Fourteen percent of Hispanics have been diagnosed with diabetes compared with 8% of whites. They also have higher rates of end-stage renal disease, caused by diabetes.

One positive outgrowth of the Heckler Report has been the creation and proliferation of public-health offices at the federal, state and local levels of government designed specifically to target minority health and lessen or eliminate disparities.

In Youngstown, the Office of Minority Health was created in 2008 and has led the charge locally to bring greater equity to health care and health-care outcomes. On Saturday, the office sponsored its annual Citywide Baby Shower at the Eugenia Atkinson Recreation Center in Youngstown at which participants received baby items and education on effective lifestyle habits to maximize chances of a safe birth.

Later this month, the office is helping to sponsor a forum on preventing breast cancer at the Valley’s OCCHA (Organizacion Civica y Cultural Hispana Americana) in Youngstown.

Clearly, such education and advocacy efforts hold the key to slow but steady progress in reducing minority infant mortality rates and narrowing other lingering health disparities in the Valley.

We therefore urge the YOMH in concert with larger public health districts in Mahoning and Trumbull counties to accelerate their work toward promoting awareness, education, advocacy and support to reduce health care inequities among racial and ethnic groups in our community during April, Minority Health Month, and every month .

In so doing they can live up to the the theme of Minority Health Month 2024, “Be the Source for Better Health: Improving Health Outcomes Through Our Cultures, Communities, and Connections

Yet as long as so many health gaps between whites and minority groups fester, King’s appeal of nearly six decades ago remains just as relevant today. Until the gaps are completely closed, his dream for equality for all — including equitable physical and mental health outcomes — will continue to be a dream deferred.



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