Take charge of your health today. Be informed. Be involved.

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“Differences in health based on race, ethnicity, or economics can be reduced but will require public awareness and understanding of which groups are most vulnerable, which disparities are most correctable through available interventions, and whether disparities are being resolved over time.”—Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The city of Pittsburgh has been in the national spotlight lately for its revitalization—in appearance, spirit, and even economic momentum. But, what about the people of Pittsburgh? How well are we doing?

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In terms of health, we should be concerned. According to findings recently published in the report Allegheny County Health in Black and White, produced by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County Health Department and the University of Pittsburgh’s University Center for Social and Urban Research, we have some work to do, especially with regard to minority health and health disparities. It’s time to pause, refocus our game and take charge of our health.

Health disparities, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are “differences in health outcomes and their determinants between segments of the population, as defined by social, demographic, environmental, and geographic characteristics.” It is an issue that is complex, multi-layered and considerably affected by one’s education and income. In Pittsburgh, the health disparities between different racial groups are high, especially among African Americans.

For example, as seen in table 1, the top three causes of death among Blacks nationally and in Allegheny County are heart disease, cancer and stroke, which are the same for the county’s White population. However, according to the 2008 Allegheny County Mortality Report, the fourth leading cause of death among African Americans in Allegheny County is homicide, whereas it is their sixth leading cause of death nationally. For young Black men ages 12-29 living in the city of Pittsburgh, the homicide rate in 2005 was nearly 60 times the city-wide average and more than 50 times the national average. Local mortality rates for stroke, heart disease and other causes of death among African Americans (listed in figure 1) have dropped overall since 1980. While this is encouraging, rates for other causes of death among African Americans—such as diabetes, kidney disease and unintentional injuries (falls, car crashes, etc.)—either haven’t changed since 1980 or are increasing.

These few examples show that African Americans in Allegheny County shoulder a disproportionate burden of preventable disease and death and that a tremendous amount of work is necessary to reduce health disparities and achieve health equity in our region.

However, these examples also serve as a call to action in a positive way—when you know the enemy, you can fight it and progress is possible. In the next several months, the New Pittsburgh Courier is teaming with the Urban League and the University of Pittsburgh’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) to provide information, resources and events readers can use to improve their health in several areas, including diabetes, cancer, heart disease and HIV/AIDS. Watch for monthly spreads in th Courier every third Wednesday of the month, such as this one, that will give you the tools to take charge of your own health.

Why should you care about health disparities? Because they affect your health and the health of future generations. Everyone deserves to be healthy. Everyone deserves access to the excellent health care available in our region. With the right knowledge, we can take control of our health and, ultimately, our quality of life.

Unless otherwise noted, all information was taken from Allegheny County Health in Black and White, April 2011.

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