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Disease rife in public housing

A group of black children who live in public housing in Tampa are stricken by preventable diseases at alarming rates, according to a recent study by the Urban League and health experts.

Results from the four-year study, which were released Thursday night, showed that among the surveyed children, one out of four had scoliosis, one out of five had anemia and nine out of 10 had poor teeth. Experts pointed to a number of possible causes for disease rates that dwarfed national averages, such as poor diets and few doctors appointments.

"The average middle-class black man doesn't go to the doctor until he's nearly dead," said Darrell Daniels, an administrator at the Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League. "We just don't seem to believe in preventive health care."

The local Urban League designed the study, named the Trust report, to screen for diseases that disproportionally affect black children. With funds from the Kellogg Foundation and scores of volunteers, Trust coordinators invited 1,500 children from the College Hill and Ponce de Leon public housing complexes for free doctors appointments and to participate in the research project. After their doctors' visits, the children went to talks on health education and finding role models.

On top of dispiriting medical findings about children who looked healthy, Trust also discovered that many kids hurt in more subtle ways.

"A lot of the boys felt shut out of society," Daniels said. "There's nothing worse than a 15-year-old young man who says he's so upset he can't cry."

When Trust first started providing services in 1989, it targeted boys between 10 and 17. Later, it began recording its findings as part of a research project. Last year, coordinators opened the study up to adolescent girls.

One of the most disturbing moments of the project was when three girls were diagnosed with HIV. Experts learned that though many of children were sexually active, often with multiple partners, few used protection.

"This is a population of kids who have multiple health problems, and very little health care," said Cynthia Selleck, a physician who helped with the study.

Nationally, about 2 percent of the population has anemia and scoliosis, and about 23 percent have cavities. The rates were far higher for the youth in the study.

And what little health care that was available to the children in the study is now over. Kellogg is no longer funding the project, and the local Urban League is looking for alternative sponsors.

Travis Staley was one of the beneficiaries of the Urban League programs at College Hill. Skinny and quiet, the 15-year-old attends an alternative school after being expelled. Travis is one of those teenagers coordinators wish they had more resources to track. Travis says he liked the programs _ all but one.

"They taught us about problems at home and stuff and that was good," Travis said. "But I'm never gonna like the doctor's office. I don't like the smell."