Infectious Diseases

Health Disparities: Improving Health Means Addressing Complex Issues

By: Asha Farrah, Newborn Screening and Genetics, APHL

After attending the 3rd Annual Minority Health Conference at The George Washington University, I formed a better understanding of the myriad of factors contributing to the high prevalence of AIDS, mental health concerns and substance abuse in minority communities.

Contributing factors to the high rate of HIV infection among minority populations was examined.  Factors include higher prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, lack of awareness of HIV status, struggles with stigma associated with HIV infection and mental illness, and the life challenges associated with low socioeconomic status.

Dr. William B. Lawson, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Howard University, discussed high-risk behaviors among former prison inmates.  He found that former inmates continued to engage in risky behaviors after their release. Operating under a false sense of security because people with HIV now live longer, they saw no reason to modify their behavior.

Mental health is a major concern in minority communities.  It is often associated with other disorders and can spiral into additional health problems.  For example, mental abuse is often directly linked to substance abuse, and the stigma associated with discussing or seeking help for mental health issues discourages people from pursuing treatment. Substance abuse and drug overdoses are high among those with mentally illness. According to Dr. Lawson, two minorities in DC die each week due to drug overdose.

But despite the devastation to minority communities caused by AIDS, mental health concerns and substance abuse, public health professionals can continue to reduce health disparities by developing programs that support respected community institutions such as schools, churches and community centers.  Even a program that was mentioned which included having condoms available at barbershops and beauty salons is a small step towards big change.


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