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Blacks can take charge of their health

The bad news keeps getting worse for African-Americans. While the health and life expectancy of non-Latino whites and most other groups in the nation steadily improve, ours continue to decline by comparison.

To find answers, President Clinton has initiated a $400-million program that he hopes will yield positive results by the year 2010. He declared that the statistical disparities between the health of whites and blacks "are unacceptable in a country that values equality and equal opportunity." He added that "nowhere are the divisions of race and ethnicity more sharply drawn than in the health of our people."

The initiative, headed by Surgeon General David Satcher, would collect data over five years, weigh the effectiveness of current federal programs and assist communities in establishing ways of improving minority health.

Indeed, the health of black people nationally and here in the Tampa Bay area is abysmal, especially in the key areas of AIDS, immunization, heart disease, cancer screening and management, heart disease, infant mortality and diabetes, which is of special concern.

Why _ when a robust economy has meant better jobs, more money, higher education and better housing for blacks _ is the health of black people declining in the 1990s? Why, for example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, did cases of diabetes rise 33 percent among blacks from 1980 to 1994, three times the increase among whites? Why is our life span six or seven years shorter than that of whites?

Many experts affiliated with the Clinton initiative argue that race, discrimination and cultural and social forces determine the care that people receive and,consequently, their health. Gwendolyn Washington, director of pharmacy at Palms of Pasadena Hospital in St. Petersburg, agrees.

But she and her African-American colleagues, all members of the Suncoast Pharmacy Alumni Council of Florida A&M University, are not wringing their hands over the dire findings.

With support from Palms of Pasadena Hospital, they have established a long-overdue program that teaches blacks to take personal responsibility for their health. Unlike other black organizations that sidestep reality and hedge on the truth, the council acknowledges that blacks have special health problems.

With three pharmacists with special diabetes training, the council meets with a diabetes support group every third Thursday night from 7 to 9 at the Ramada Limited on 34th St. S in St. Petersburg. Another of the council's self-help efforts is its annual spring program called "Close to Your Heart." The most recent one, held at Bethel Community Baptist Church, drew about 60 people, who were given free screening for diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Washington, whose daughter is on dialysis as a result of diabetes, said that black people with diabetes "must take charge" of their lives and avoid or reduce the long-term complications of the disease.

"We are far too passive about our health," she said. "Through early detection, we can get a handle on the blood sugar level and save the eyes, feet, heart and kidneys. For African-Americans, it is recommended that we be screened every year after age 45, especially if we have a familial history of diabetes or if you are a woman who has had a baby weighing over 8 pounds at birth. Obviously, if a person has symptoms _ excessive thirst, frequent night-time urination, extreme hunger, blurred vision, dizziness, sluggishness _ they should consult a doctor and request a blood sugar level be done."

Washington, along with her colleagues, rejects all excuses.

"Each of us is responsible for our own health. Nobody _ not your doctor, your mother or father, your husband or wife _ is responsible for your health except you," she said. "Our goal is to educate black people about their health. Only through education can you understand diabetes if you have it.

"Only through understanding can you treat your disease. We teach our participants how to understand their treatment, their medicines and their doctor's instructions. People in our support groups feel empowered because they have knowledge. They feel hopeful. The problem is that we don't have but five or six to attend. That's a shame, because a lot of African-Americans have diabetes and other diseases that we can help them with."

For more information about the Suncoast Pharmacy Alumni Council, call Gwendolyn Washington at 906-8118.

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