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Why 7 Deadly Diseases Strike Blacks Most

Health care disparities heighten disease differences between African-Americans and white Americans.

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Like Yancy, LeRoy M. Graham Jr., MD, says the time is ripe for Americans to come to grips with these issues. Graham, a pediatric lung expert, serves on the American Lung Association's board of directors, is associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, and serves as staff physician for Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"I just think we as physicians need to get more impassioned," Graham tells WebMD. "There are health disparities. There are things that may have more sinister origins in institutionalized racism. But we as doctors need to spend more time recognizing these disparities and addressing them -- together with our patients -- on a very individual level."

Black Americans and Lung Disease

A 2005 report from the American Lung Association shows that black Americans suffer far more lung disease than white Americans do.

Some of the findings:

  • Black Americans have more asthma than any racial or ethnic group in America. And blacks are 3 times more likely to die of asthma than whites.
  • Black Americans are 3 times more likely to suffer sarcoidosis than white Americans. The lung-scarring disease is 16 times more deadly for blacks than for whites.
  • Black American children are 3 times as likely as white American children to have sleep apnea.
  • Black American babies die of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) 2.5 times as often as white American babies.
  • Black American men are 50% more likely to get lung cancer than white American men.
  • Black Americans are half as likely to get flu and pneumonia vaccinations as white Americans.

Why?

"There are a couple of reasons," Graham says. "One is that 71% of African-Americans versus 58% of white Americans live in communities that violate federal air pollution standards. When we look at African-Americans in terms of demographic distribution, they are more likely to be located near, if not next to, transportation corridors, and to places where the air is drawn."

Another reason is that a higher percentage of black Americans than white Americans live close to toxic waste dumps -- and to the factories that produce this waste.

Genetic differences may also play a role. For example, it is clear that cigarette smoking causes lung disease. Cigarette smoking is declining faster among blacks than among whites -- but blacks still die of lung diseases more frequently than white Americans. This could be due to health care disparities -- blacks may get diagnosed later, when diseases are harder to treat -- but it could also be due to genetic susceptibility.

"The environment is involved, and there is potential genetic susceptibility -- but we also have to talk about the fact that African-Americans' social and economic status lags behind that of Caucasians," Graham says. "And low socioeconomic status is linked to more disease."

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