February is Black History Month, or National African American History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history.
Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month. Other countries around the world, including Canada and the United Kingdom, also devote a month to celebrating black history. The story of Black History Month begins in 1915, half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in the United States.
After years of observing poorer health for blacks and other minorities in comparison to whites, the Secretary of HHS, Margaret Heckler, commissioned a powerful task force in 1984 to describe these health results more fully and to consider what the federal government could do to address them. The Secretary released the Task Force’s report in October 1985, marking the first time that the federal government provided a national picture of the health of racial and ethnic minorities. What are some of these health disparities and how do they compare?
As we’ve discussed before at HealthComU, high blood pressure is the leading cause of heart attack and stroke in the United States. About 2 out of every 5 African American adults have high blood pressure, and fewer than half of them have it under control. African American adults are much more likely to suffer from high blood pressure (hypertension), and heart attack and stroke deaths than white adults. Individuals living below the federal poverty level are also more likely to have high blood pressure compared with those living at the highest level of income.
Certain blood disorders also affect African Americans more than other ethnicities. Sickle cell disease is an inherited red blood cell disorder that affects approximately 100,000 people in the United States, mainly African Americans. One of the most common treatments for this disease is regular blood transfusions. Many sickle cell patients have rare blood types unique to African Americans, meaning these patients rely on donors with matching blood types from the same ethnic or genetic background. Approximately 45 percent of people in the United States have type O blood. This percentage is higher among African Americans at 51 percent. Type O blood is frequently used in emergency situations because it is universally compatible.
As the United States celebrates Black History Month, one enduring challenge we face as a nation is the persistent health disparities between African Americans and white Americans. In order to effectively bridge these gaps, we must look at the broader context in which these significant racial and ethnic disparities persist for a wide range of health outcomes, from diabetes to heart disease to breast and cervical cancer to STIs, including HIV.
Even with these great community and statewide efforts, health care disparities continue to be a significant issue, and we need to consistently develop, evaluate, and expand programs that are aimed at reducing its effects. Structural inequalities—from disparities in education and health care to the vicious cycle of poverty— still pose enormous hurdles for black communities across America. The health disparities affecting African Americans are striking and are apparent in life expectancy, death rates, infant mortality, and other measures of health status. Many organizations are currently working to advance the real interests of African Americans through access to a range of health information, services and rights they need to lead healthy lives. How are you helping close the gap?