The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday called racism a “serious threat” to public health, becoming the latest and largest US-based health agency to identify racism as having a “profound and negative impact on communities of color ”and contributing to disproportionate death rates among people of color.
“Dealing with the impact of racism will not be easy,” CDC director Dr Rochelle Walensky said in a statement posted on the agency’s website. “I know we can do it if we work together. I certainly hope you will lean over and join. “
In its announcement, the CDC noted that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on ethnic groups. The public health agency added that racial minority groups “experience higher rates of illness and death from a wide range of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma and heart disease, compared to their white counterparts.
Walensky said that in an effort to combat racism, the CDC will continue to study the impact of social determinants on health outcomes, expand investments in ethnic minority communities and launch a web portal, “Racism and health”, aimed at launching a public discourse on the subject.
Other public health agencies and medical organizations have condemned racism in recent months. More than 150 municipalities and state and local health agencies across the United States, as well as the American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association, have made the connection between racism and public health issues.
Members of Congress are also calling for structural racism to be recognized as a public health crisis.
The Anti-Racism in Public Health Act – reintroduced in February and co-sponsored by Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. be p. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. – seeks to combat the impact of racism on public health by creating two anti-racism programs within the CDC, including a Center for Combating Racism in the Health Field and a Protection Against Racism Program violence by the police.
Public health officials praised the CDC for its statement.
“It was a long time coming,” said Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, family physician and epidemiologist and past president of the American Public Health Association.
“I think it’s great that racism is recognized and identified as a threat to the well-being of the nation,” she said. “Naming racism as a threat, as the CDC has done, is timely and a bold, necessary and important step.”
Jones worked for the CDC from 2000 to 2014 and, during his stay, made it a priority to raise awareness of the harmful impact of racism on public health.
She noted that racism has played a critical role in public health in the United States for decades, citing both the pandemic and contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan as examples.
“Racism operates not only when it comes to Covid-19 but also when it comes to infant mortality, maternal mortality and obesity,” Jones said.
According to a 2019 CDC report, the infant mortality rate among African Americans is double that of non-Hispanic whites, and African American newborns are nearly four times more likely to die from complications related to an low birth weight.
Another CDC report released in 2019 noted that black, Native American and Alaskan Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women.
“What’s happening now is we finally have a political backbone in pointing to racism as an issue,” Jones said. “If you don’t name a problem, you can never solve it.”
Carlton Duncan, former CDC deputy managing director, agreed.
“It’s just in time, especially with what’s going on in the country with the pandemic, with skepticism around the vaccine in some communities, because of the CDC’s history with Tuskegee,” Duncan said, referring to the study of untreated syphilis in Africa. American Men from 1932 to 1972 by the US Public Health Service which the CDC has since condemned as unethical. The study was cited as a contributing factor to many members of the African American community wary of the Covid-19 vaccine.
“I hope the public will be able to wrap their arms around the CDC calling racism a threat to public health and that this announcement will help heal some of the wounds, some of the wounds,” Duncan said.
“This is a major step forward,” he added. “The implications of this decision are vast and far-reaching, especially given the state of racial animosity and division that characterizes America today.”