Category Archives: race
A recent study from Columbia University found that of all the health factors they measured, poverty had the greatest negative impact on health. The other factors they looked at included smoking, obesity, lack of health insurance, and binge drinking, all of which had a less significant impact on health outcomes than living in poverty. Poverty, defined as living below 200% of the United Stated Federal Poverty Level, was determined to take away 8.2 years of health, meaning poor people have 8.2 fewer years in which they are healthy than someone above 200% of the FPL (This is a standard measure of health burden, used by the WHO.) We should also be explicit that when we talk about poverty we talk about race – over 50% of black and Latino young adults live in poverty, compared to less than 30% of white young adults.
To which I respond, well, YES, clearly. But you would never know these things from the way we talk about health. Think about how many public health programs are focused directly on the spectre of obesity. There’s PE programs and school activity policies, public education campaigns (usually involving TV ads) to tell people to spend less time watching TV, there’s calorie labeling requirements and scolding people to go to their farmer’s markets and taxes on soda or foods with trans fat. Some of those policies may have worth, but their goal of eliminating TEH FAT ZOMG and thereby solving the health crisis is clearly misdirected. Even worse are the articles and attitudes engendered by this focus on obesity as a health issue, like this recent article in the LA Times, because they imply that a systemic issue like the health care problem can be resolved by individuals changing their lifestyles, rather than by systemic change on a much broader level.
The effect of poverty on health has been clearly documented. People who live in poverty are more likely to have asthma and diabetes. They’re way more likely to be exposed to parasites like toxocariasis, cysticercosis, and toxoplasmosis, which can have significant physical and neurological effects including seizures and developmental delays. They’re five times more likely to be exposed to lead paint as children. They’re twice as likely to have untreated cavities, which can lead to heart disease or infection and even death. This all means that from the beginning, even from birth, people living in poverty are more likely to develop or acquire a disability or chronic health condition.
It would seem, then, that addressing poverty in order to prevent those negative health outcomes would be a public health priority. But it really isn’t – poverty programs are rarely described as health programs. When a politician starts talking about welfare, they’re talking about cash payments to help parents raise their kids, to preserve and support families. They don’t talk about how assisting a family out of poverty will make that whole family healthier, and less in need of health care. And addressing the negative health effects of poverty – safely removing all the lead paint, preventing slum housing conditions like cockroach infestations and mold that contribute to asthma, get them some access to dental care – would have an enormously beneficial effect on hundreds of thousands of individuals and on the health care system as a whole. However, addressing the systemic effects of poverty isn’t nearly as easy as shaming “the fatties” and slapping some calorie numbers on menus.
This is especially galling because there is so much overlap between the community of PWDs and people in poverty. A recent study found that almost half of working-age adults who experience poverty for at least a 12-month period have one or more disabilities. People with disabilities account for a larger share of those experiencing poverty than people in all other minority, ethnic and racial groups combined and are even a larger group than single parents. Families with more than one member with a disability are even more likely to be living in poverty. There are two things going on here. First, people who live in poverty are more likely to be or become PWDs, partly because of the health factors discussed above. But also, PWDs are more likely to live in poverty, partly because of the cost of health care.
All of this suggests that our conversations about health care need to include ideas about addressing poverty and that our work on poverty issues has special effects on health and disability. Hurrah for intersectionality!
As you’re likely aware, an immensely destructive earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. It was centered in the capital city Port-au-Prince, home to over 2 million residents, and destroyed buildings, food and water systems, hospitals, and seemingly the national government. The information and photos coming out of the country have been disturbing and heartbreaking. The full scope of the damage – to the people, to the country – has yet to be determined, but it is surely catastrophic.
The effect of the disaster on Haitians with disabilities is similarly devastating. Although the earthquake and subsequent building collapses happened so quickly that neither PWD nor TAB had an opportunity to get to safety, conditions after the quake are likely disproportionately difficult for PWDs. The streets are covered in debris and destruction, there is no electricity, and people need to scavenge for any available food and water. Additionally, literally all of the medical facilities in the city were destroyed in the quake, so there is no access to medications, doctors, anything. Even now, four days after the quake, there is extremely limited emergency care in Port-au-Prince, with people traveling 6 hours by car to one of the few undamaged hospitals in the country for emergency surgery.
In addition, there are an untold number of people who are newly disabled due to the catastrophe and its aftermath. Most of the injuries are open compound fractures, where broken bones have penetrated the skin. These require immediate surgery to re-set the bone and close the wound to prevent infection – which injured patients haven’t been able to get. These people haven’t gotten food and water, much less antibiotics.
Dr. Jennifer Ashton reported that “most of these patients have not eaten in three days. They are profoundly dehydrated and they have crush injuries to their long limbs, upper arms, body and, in some cases, open pelvic fractures, which set the scene for some very serious and life-threatening infection. In addition, when limbs get crushed like that, if they don’t have surgical management immediately, they risk losing that limb as the swelling and infection really take off and that’s what we’re seeing.” Ann Curry reported that desperate doctors were performing surgery on injured children without anesthetics. It is also likely that a number of survivors will develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After the tsunami of 2004, PTSD rates averaged about 10% in the population.
It’s important to note that not everyone injured in the quake is subject to these conditions. American citizens were evacuated by U.S. Air Force planes and other chartered planes to be treated in United States hospitals. This Anchorage woman had her lower right leg crushed by rubble and was then evacuated to a hospital in Miami, where her foot was amputated. These conditions are affecting people without the money or resources to get adequate care. And they are exacerbated by the poverty and unstable infrastructure that existed prior to the quake. (Which the U.S. and France and other colonial powers created and sustained, but that’s more than I can get into with this post.)
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by this, but there are things you can do to help:
- Portlight Strategies, Inc. focuses on Haitians with disabilities. It works with a community of Catholic nuns who will be opening shelters in Port-au-Prince for PWDs, and donated funds will go to “defray shipping costs of medical and clinical equipment … and for the purchase of food and other shelter supplies.”
- Healing Hands for Haiti has been providing prosthetic and orthodic services and supplies to Haitians with disabilities since 1998 and will be deploying staff and equipment to help PWDs.
- Christian Blind Mission, an organization focused on PWDs in the developing world, partners with local organizations in a number of medical facilities throughout Haiti. Donations will “support its Partners in the affected area with emergency assistance and long-term rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.”
- Aid for AIDS is collecting medical supplies, including unused medications. They are especially interested in antiretrovirals to help Haitians with AIDS whose treatment has been interrupted by the disaster. There are drop-off points throughout the US, or you can send them to Aid for AIDS at 120 Wall Street, 26 Floor
New York, N.Y. 10005.
- Partners in Health is also seeking donations of these specific items: “need specific items urgently: orthopedic supplies, surgical consumables (sutures, bandages, non-powdered sterile gloves, syringes, etc), blankets, tents, satellite phones with minutes, and large unopened boxes of medications. No small quantities or unused personal medications will be accepted.“
Please also remember to take care of yourself during this time. It’s been easy for me to spend hours reading articles, looking at photos, watching footage, and feeling increasingly overwhelmed and helpless. Don’t lose track of your own health and well being.