Being born in a great neighborhood with parents who are financially secure is something that not everyone is privileged to have. In fact, where you were born and how you were raised has a huge impact on how you turn out as an adult – even how healthy you may or may not be. Because there are still areas in the United States where people live in disadvantaged communities where there is little to no focus on health and education, there are still vast differences in how healthy children are as they grow up.
Although our health system has improved over the years, people all over the country suffer from death, disease and disability that could be prevented if the proper programs were put into place. There is a significant difference between the birth outcomes in these communities, as compared to birth outcomes in white communities in the U.S.
As a matter of fact, the CDC reports that the rankings for the U.S. in infant mortality are lower compared to other industrialized countries, due to the large disparities that exist among racial and ethnic communities. Here are some statistics regarding race and ethnicity, as reported by the CDC:
- Compared with white youth, black and Hispanic youth have higher prevalence of asthma, overweight, and type 2 diabetes.
- Rates of HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, and teen pregnancy are higher among black and Hispanic youth than among whites of the same age.
- In 2007, black youth accounted for approximately 68% of new HIV/AIDS cases among 13–19 year olds, even though they represented only 15% of the population in that age group.
- Hispanic youth experience proportionately more anxiety-related behaviors and depression than do non-Hispanic white youth.
- Among youth aged 10–19 years, American Indians have the highest prevalence of type 2 diabetes of any racial/ethnic group.
- Suicide rates among American Indians/Alaska Natives aged 15–34 years are more than two times higher than the national average for that age group.
Many factors contribute to health disparities in this country. They usually relate directly to a person’s socioeconomic status. The most common are the following:
- Unequal access to health care
- Poor environmental conditions
- Educational inequalities
- Individual behaviors such as alcohol consumption or smoking
- Language barriers
Generally, families who are impoverished live in densely populated communities where sickness can spread quickly and easily; nutrition is poor; education is lacking; and environmental contaminants are high. These all factor into the health of a pregnant mother and in turn the health of her baby.
Education is a huge factor because an expectant mother’s lack of basic health information can influence her decisions during pregnancy—which in turn impact the health of her unborn child. A lack of education can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as poor diet; lack of physical activity; risky sexual behaviors; and use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs. These behaviors are some of the leading causes of poor birth outcomes.
Environment is also a significant factor in health disparities. Whether it is a contaminated work environment, unclean home environment, or polluted community, environmental factors can negatively affect birth outcomes, causing children to be born prematurely or with a low birth weight (LBW).
The following environmental factors can affect birth outcomes:
- Tobacco smoke
- Drinking water disinfection byproducts
- Organochlorine (DDT) and organophosphate pesticides
- Exposure to lead
- Exposure to sickness
- Air or water pollutants
- Unclean living conditions
All of these things can contribute to a child’s bill of health at birth. Any one of these can cause a child to be born either prematurely or with LBW, both of which increase the infant’s for becoming ill or suffering from SIDS. They are also at significant risk for both short-term neonatal morbidity and long-term disabilities that may include the following:
- Respiratory distress syndrome
- Variable heart rate
- Cerebral ventriculomegaly
- Cerebral palsy
- Mental retardation
- Learning disabilities
- Behavioral disabilities
- Motor impairment
The best way to combat these health disparities is to ensure that pregnant mothers have access to the proper education and prenatal care they need in order to care for themselves and their babies. This should not only include doctor’s visits and screenings, but behavior modification and education on poor lifestyle choices like these:
- Substance abuse
- Poor nutrition
- Lack of physical activity
Communities should advocate prenatal care for expectant mothers, especially in the first trimester. Providing a mother with information; addressing her health care needs; and implementing educational programs to teach good life decisions and promote exercise and nutrition may be the best answer to eliminate the health disparities that exist within communities all over the United States.