Unhealthy gap

Poor health in North Carolina more likely for racial and ethnic minorities.

By Carmen Hooker Odom

[05.11.04] — It is a sad fact of life in North Carolina: Being African American or American Indian often means being in poorer health than whites.

Health disparities are not new. Minority groups in North Carolina have long had, overall, worse health outcomes than the white population.

Our growing Hispanic Latino population is also experiencing poorer health status in several areas.

Yet our Asian populations tend to have better health on nearly every measure of health status.

A new state report helps quantify those differences so we can better understand what is going on, and why, and can better work to find solutions.

When parts of our population are suffering higher rates of chronic illness, communicable diseases, disabling injuries, untimely deaths, or just poor health, the whole state is affected.

We lose the benefits of hundreds of talented minds and lives. Productivity, and therefore economic progress, falters.

Poor student health hampers schools.

We all pay more for health insurance or higher taxes to offset high health-care costs for those who have little or no resources. Communicable diseases can more easily spread throughout the whole population.

So, eliminating these inequalities in health status improves the lives of not just a few, but of all North Carolinians.

We need to figure out ways to even out the playing field — to eliminate or avoid the barriers and obstacles that get in the way of good health for all North Carolinians.

And then we need to make it happen.

Prevention is a top priority — finding better ways to prevent chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, which disproportionately affect African Americans and American Indians.

We must also prevent communicable diseases, especially sexually transmitted diseases and HIV that strike our minority populations especially hard.

We need to treat the underlying problems as well.

In many cases, that underlying problem is poverty. nd, poverty affects different groups disproportionately.

Righting this long-standing wrong by effectively combating the long-standing issue of health will take a combined effort of nonprofits, local, state and federal agencies; legislators; and federal agencies to disparities. Wiping out health disparities in North Carolina is going to take community-based solutions.

Nonprofits are already playing a key role in this arena and must continue to do so if we are going to have one North Carolina, where all North Carolinians have an equal chance for a healthy, productive life, no matter their race, ethnicity, or economic status.

Carmen Hooker Odom is North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services.

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