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Berkeley Health Report: Disparities Persist

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday May 29, 2007

Health staff and public information officers were upbeat last week when they called out the press to a Tuesday morning briefing in which they emphasized the city’s overall good health. 

“The increase in life expectancy has gone from 73 to 80” over the last 10 years, Health Officer Dr. Linda Rudolph said. 

While Rudolph touched on the health divide between African Americans and whites at the press briefing, she painted a more alarming and more complete picture of the city’s health disparities at the Tuesday evening City Council workshop, where she presented the 190-page Berkeley Health Status Report 2007, authored by Health Department staff. 

“The gap in mortality [between African Americans and whites] has not narrowed in the last 15 years,” Rudolph told the councilmembers, who were thumbing through the booklet, getting their first look at the statistic-laden document. 

The report shows that while Berkeley’s white residents lived an average of 81.7 years in 1997-2000 and 83.1 years in 2001-2004, African Americans’ longevity did not increase during the same period, with blacks living an average of 70.9 years in 1997-2000 and 70.8 years in 2001-2004.  

The study provides no comparative data for Latinos, but shows that the longevity for Asian Americans decreased slightly from 86.3 years in 1997-2000 to 85.3 years to 2001-2004.  

“The income inequality in Berkeley is growing.” Rudolph told the council, noting the recent “increase of wealthy white individuals in the city” and the loss of some 3,000 African Americans in the city during the 1990s.  

“Of all risk factors for health, poverty is the most important,” Rudolph told the council. “In the U.S., race and poverty are inextricably intertwined.”  

In Berkeley, 2,100 children live in poverty, Rudolph said. 

On the positive side, statistics show that today 95 percent of Berkeley women of all races get prenatal care, beginning in the first trimester of pregnancy. In 1995 only about 85 percent of Latino women and 80 percent of African American women got early prenatal care. 

Despite early care, African Americans in Berkeley continue to deliver low-weight babies. “Low birth weight declined in African Americans during the 1990s, but has increased again in recent years. The proportion of low birth weight babies is still twice as high in African Americans compared to other groups,” the report says. 

Although there is better access to prenatal care, about 18 percent of African American women gave birth to low-weight babies in 2005-2006, while the number of low-weight babies among Latinos, whites and Asian Americans in 2005-2006 ranged from 4-to-8 percent.  

Rudolph pointed the council to some of the other health disparities noted in the report: while overall statistics for high blood pressure are lower in Berkeley than in other parts of Alameda county, the rate for African Americans in Berkeley is three times higher than for whites and Asians.  

The rate for hospitalization for diabetes is 10 times higher for African Americans than for whites. The highest number of hospitalizations is in the southwest Berkeley zip codes 94702-94703. 

Similarly, rates of hospitalization for asthma and lung cancer are elevated among African Americans in Berkeley. 

While the problems are clearly stated, the report does not suggest specific solutions. Rudolph said she wants to work with the community and other city departments to name them. 

Councilmember Max Anderson said at the workshop that the council should look more seriously at addressing the health disparity question. 

“It’s a matter of political will,” Anderson said. “We spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on land use; [health issues} are of equal importance—in many cases they are more important. This translates into who lives and who dies in our community.” 

“We’re not going to impact [the disparities] with the medical model,” Rudolph said, pointing to the need for access to nutritious food, clean air, safe housing and employment. 

Richie Smith works with the South Berkeley Community Action Team, a city-sponsored community organization that looks at health and quality-of-life questions in southwest Berkeley. 

In a phone interview Friday, she pointed to the lack of stores carrying fresh fruit and vegetables in southwest Berkeley.  

“If the [liquor store owners] were encouraged to enter into the community, things could dramatically change,” she said. 

There are very few places for youth to go,” Smith said, noting the need for jobs and employment. 

And seniors face problems as well, including the high cost of housing and health care, the lack of transportation, hazardous sidewalks and poor lighting on parts of Alcatraz Avenue, said Smith who also serves on the Commission of Aging.  

“All this has to do with health and well-being,” Smith said, adding that it is hard to get city officials to focus on these questions. “Officials say things to get elected and then they forget,” she said. 

The report points to some actions the city has taken, including the opening of a hypertension clinic at the Over 60s Health Center at Sacramento Street and Alcatraz Avenue.  

The Berkeley High School Health Center is credited with reducing sexually transmitted diseases and teen births, and an oral health program has been instituted in the schools. 

While the report names racism as a factor in health disparities, it does not posit remedies. 

The health disparities “have to be a community concern,” said Councilmember Max Anderson, in a phone interview Friday. Anderson represents much of the city’s low-income and African American community. “The whole city has to take this as seriously as the fire danger in the hills. An injury to the hills is an injury to all. Health disparities in the flatlands is an injury to all.”