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Monday, July 2, 2012

The Tie that Binds: International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora Will Discuss Trans-National Health Challenges of African Descendants

Jamille Fields

Staff Writer

Perhaps somewhat strangely, African descendants throughout the world who have never met, who do not speak the same language, and who have not traveled the same streets have many things in common. There is the similar head nod in reaction to beats blaring from a Congo drum, a hip-hop base line, or Reggae chords. The soulful spices in our meals share similarities. The African proverb, "It takes a village to raise a child," has modern-day relevance in the child-rearing patterns of African-American families, where grandmothers are often involved in the day-to-day upbringing of children (notice that the First Lady's mother moved into the White House to take care of the First Kids). There is something that makes African descendents throughout the world, whether from Haiti, California, Britain, or Senegal, be able to sit in a room and smile about the things we have in common.

Unfortunately, however, not everything we share merits celebration, and poor health is one common experience we could do without. This July 5-8, scholars, journalists, community leaders, and everyday people from 16 nations are coming together for the International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora (ICHAD), hosted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The conference, appropriately titled "The Great Scattering: Solving the Puzzle of Slavery, Race, and Contemporary Health in the African Diaspora," will discuss the common health and health care challenges facing communities of African descent throughout the globe, in hopes of developing effective solutions to this expansive problem.

Many of the health problems affecting our communities' women, men, and children persist regardless of where we live, the type of government in command, or the health system in place. For instance, among women, blacks in America and blacks in Britain experience similar inadequacies in treatments, even though one country has a single payer system and the other country, well, the other country is America. For men, the prevalence of prostate cancer is more comparable among African descendants throughout the disapora than whites in their own country. For children in the United States, not only is the infant mortality rate for African-Americans more than twice that of whites, but in parts of some cities, like St. Louis, infant mortality rates are of the same or worse than those in third world countries. Comparisons for other diseases and cities are similar: the HIV rate for African-American women in poor areas in our nation's capital is 12 percent, slightly above the 11 percent in Malawi, which is one of the least developed countries in the world.

While the causes of these common health disparities vary, and experts differ on where they place the blame, it is clear that many factors are involved. Some believe the most obvious culprit is genetics, as these populations have shared blood lines. But evidence indicates that genetics are a very small part of the equation. Another potential factor is lower socioeconomic status, given that African descendants often have lower educational attainment and incomes than whites, whether in America or Jamaica or many other countries. These social conditions no doubt add to the problem, but they don't explain everything: Even with income and education out of the picture, people of African descent still have worse health. Social conditions also don't account for why African descendants in America and those in the Caribbean have similar health problems, given that they live in different conditions from one another. These problems are reduced when given the same access to health care. For example, for African-American men in the U.S. military who have equal access to insurance and better access to health care, the risk of prostate cancer was more comparable to their white counterparts.

The health disparities faced by communities of the African Diaspora, wherever they reside, are a complex topic with real life consequences. ICHAD will provide a critical opportunity to develop concrete solutions. The tie that binds African descendants runs much deeper than music, food, or family structures, and the common health problems are an unfortunate example. Understanding our common challenges will get us closer to shared solutions. ICHAD will seek to show why we, as a country, should care about "those people over there." Hope to see you there!