Wednesday, August 13, 2008

AIDS in the U.S.: A World Standard?

By Melissa Sherry, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

A recent report from Black AIDS Institute proclaims that the AIDS epidemic among African Americans in parts of the U.S. is as severe as the epidemic in parts of Africa. Wait, what? AIDS in the U.S. being compared to Africa? Surely there must be a mistake….

America is a country which idealizes itself as a world standard. We point to our policies, our achievements, our research, and some even cite our healthcare as being superior. Yet when you consider the fact that the U.S. healthcare system ranks 37th out of 191 countries in the WHO rankings, reports like the Black AIDS Institute’s report on AIDS in black America should come as no surprise. In fact, the U.S. spends a greater portion of its GDP on healthcare than any other country yet it ranks the worst in the developed world in preventable deaths due to treatable conditions, second worse in infant mortality, and 42nd in life expectancy. How can we account for these shortcomings in our “superior” society? Consider the plight of African Americans.

The average lifespan of an African American living in the U.S. is 73 years of age, 5 years less than white Americans. In terms of health, African Americans are at a greater risk than their white counterparts of dying from cancer, heart disease, injuries, and countless other ailments that are often survivable with proper treatment. Nearly 20% of African Americans have no health insurance, compared to 11% of white Americans.

While some point to the lower average education and income levels of African Americans as the sole causes of disparities, there is more to the story. Recent studies have linked living in racist societies to higher blood pressure, stress, infant mortality and lower birth-weight babies. In fact, while educational attainment is highly correlated with health outcomes, studies have shown that highly educated African American women still have lower birth-weight babies and higher infant mortality rates than white women who don’t even have a high school diploma.

Women in the U.S. who have immigrated from Africa, and who have not grown up with the racism that’s ingrained in the U.S. society also have better birth outcomes than African American women; that is, until they have lived in the U.S. long enough to be affected by racism. The structural racialization of our society is undermining our progress in healthcare, and its manifestation in public health demonstrates that the U.S. is not as progressive as some may think.

If we do not want to continue to have huge disparities dragging the health of all Americans down to levels where the decency and humanity of its members is usurped, we need to openly address this racialization to increase the probability of eradicating it.

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