The U.S. is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation. It is a nation comprised of people from all walks of life, not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but also in terms of religious beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability levels, income levels, and experiences in the armed forces, to name a few. As such, although unfortunate, the U.S., as well as other developed and developing nations, experiences a wide disparity in terms of the disease burden among members of its population.
In recent years, the US has ranked below other wealthy countries in terms of overall health and health care. Factors associated with such low rankings include lack of access to affordable health care, lack of health insurance coverage, inadequate attention to mental health conditions, increase in prevalence of chronic health conditions (both among children and adults), and exposure to harmful environmental conditions, among many others.
Many of the health issues afflicting the U.S., disproportionately impact populations of people of color compared to non-Hispanic White Americans. There are multiple ways to begin to address health disparities in the US. One way is to increase people’s awareness of the contributions and health needs of the diverse groups who constitute the United States. Minority Health Month, which is recognized each year nationally during the month of April, provides such an avenue to continue that discussion.
Western Illinois University also recognizes and celebrates Minority Health Month. This annual celebration has occurred on WIU’s campus since 2006 after Byron Oden-Shabazz saw an opportunity to initiate the annual recognition of the month on campus. He worked with Dan Maxwell, the Director of Student Activities, at the time, to create a planning committee to schedule events for the month. Byron continues to serve on the planning committee.
I am currently serving as the Chair of the Minority Health Month Planning Committee. This Committee is comprised of both university and community members. As such, all of the events and activities planned for the month of April are free and open to the public.
One aim of the month is to bring attention and awareness to factors that have impacted and continue to impact the health of diverse members of the population. WIU’s Minority Health Month 2018 theme is "Partnering for Health Equity: Our Global Social Responsibility." It takes coordinated efforts of many groups, organizations, and entities collaborating to adequately address the health needs of the population.
Some may ask the question, “Why should we be concerned about the health of minority populations?” Many of us have heard the saying, “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Well, I venture to say, “A nation is as healthy as its sickest citizens.” For instance, low birth weight infants in one group will have an impact directly or indirectly on the overall health rating of infants in the country. Higher maternal mortality rates among certain segments of the population will impact the country’s overall maternal mortality rate as well. Lower life expectancy of certain groups in the country will decrease the overall life expectancy of the country. We cannot claim to not have a role in the health of others, simply because we are not being directly affected at a specific moment.
Many segments of the population are continually exposed to factors known to be associated to negative health outcomes, which lead to undo burden of various health conditions and diseases for those groups.
What are some of the factors leading to such health disparities? I believe there are many contributing factors. Let us consider environment for a moment. Where are food deserts more likely to be located? In which neighborhoods would one have the ease of locating liquor stores or convenience stores displaying and selling an abundance of alcohol and tobacco products? Where might we find residents exposed to excessive air and water pollutants? Most likely, the answer will be “in predominantly lower income and underserved neighborhoods, where the residents are primarily people of color and of diverse backgrounds.”
Thus, it should really come to no surprise to most, that the health issues in these communities are often disproportionately higher compared to more affluent communities. Such communities experience higher prevalence and mortality rates of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, stroke, asthma, influenza, HIV/AIDS, violence, unintentional injuries, suicides, substance abuse, etc. The list goes on and on.
We hope you are able to participate in many of the events during the month of April. It takes collaborative efforts of a nation to ensure the health and well-being of its residents.
Dr. Lorette Oden is Chairperson of the Department of Health Sciences and Social Work at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.