Health Officer Cites Race as Factor in Health Inequalities

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday September 28, 2007

Berkeley still has a long way to go before it can eliminate health inequalities, according to city officials who spoke at Tuesday’s Community Action Forum at St. Paul AME Church. 

Numbers came to life as community members spoke about real-life instances and discussed ways to battle existing demographic divides along racial, ethnic and social lines. 

Linda Rudolph, the city’s health officer, highlighted the positives and negatives of the city of Berkeley’s 2007 Health Status Report and outlined the ongoing action taking place to help citizens. 

“There is a large disparity between races,” she said. “African Americans have the highest death rates in all categories. A lot of diseases people are dying from can be prevented by healthy eating and exercise. People really need to focus on their diets.” 

City Manager Phil Kamlarz said that a number of relevant trends hadn’t changed since the last report. 

“The question is how we will continue this discussion,” he said. “Work together to find different answers to different things. The statistics show that Berkeley is healthy, but why don’t African Americans have some of the same numbers as whites? We need to keep developing strategies to deal with blood pressure, hypertension, poverty and diet.” 

The forum—which attracted more than a hundred people—was also attended by Alameda County superintendent Keith Carson, councilmembers Max Anderson, Darryl Moore and Kriss Worthington, who is acting as vice-mayor while Mayor Tom Bates is in England. 

Rudolf said that grave disparities in the 1999 Health Report led to the formation of a Community Action Team in 2000 which had established a lot of good models in Southwest Berkeley. 

“The single most important challenge is health and equity,” she said. “Prenatal care has really improved in Berkeley in the last ten years. The gap between blacks, Latinos and whites in getting prenatal care has gone away completely. ” 

Rudolph added that the Health Department’s first priority was to pay attention to young children. 

“We believe that every child deserves a healthy start,” she told community members.  

“Many low-income children are still obese and in addition to that, a lot of youth in the city are using tobacco, alcohol and marijuana. We know there is a problem with fighting high rates of youth violence ... It’s important to make sure every teen has an opportunity to build a healthy lifestyle.” 

The report stated that about two-thirds of all deaths in the city were from heart and circulatory diseases, cancer and stroke. About a third are caused by tobacco, poor diet and physical disabilities, it said. 

“Overall Berkeley has a low rate of hypertension, but it’s twelve times as high in African Americans as in whites,” she said.  

Heart disease and diabetes are also higher for African Americans and Latinos than for whites, she said. 

“One-hundred-and-fifty deaths of people in poor neighborhoods can be avoided if these people had the same mortality level as whites,” Rudolph said. 

“If we don’t address segregation, if we don’t address the social environment, we cannot influence these risk factors,” she said. 

“You are outlining all the problems and not addressing anything,” said George Pearson, who works as a physician’s assistant in Berkeley.  

“In January 2006 there was a discussion on the same subject ... The studies keep happening, but adverse outcomes are still adverse outcomes.” 

Rudolph replied that it was important to address the different health challenges through data. 

“We hope we can see more progress but we are going to keep working on the data,” she said. 

She also informed the community about the new Hypertension Clinic in South Berkeley which was opened to address high-risk symptoms leading to stroke and diabetes. 

Councilmember Darryl Moore spoke about the Be Fit Berkeley program—a neighborhood competition where residents could earn points by losing weight and exercising regularly—which will be launched in October. 

“The report shows that we have made some progress in dealing with low infancy birth rates and new programs but to see really significant change is long term ... probably decades,” said Julie Sinai, senior aide to the mayor. 

“The more we can get people on the same page and keep them motivated, the better. Incremental changes are important.” 


Photograph by Riya Bhattacharjee. 

At Tuesday’s Community Action Forum, teen mother and Berkeley City College student Rocky Smith recounts the story of how she was evicted by her landlord when her baby was three months old. The forum focused on the city’s newly released 2007 Health Report.