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Health equity can’t wait, act now in your community

By Lorraine Lathen, M.A.

Back in January of this year Mayor Tom Barrett along with Milwaukee Department of Health Commissioner Bevan Baker joined UW-Milwaukee officials to unite in the city’s continued effort to reduce infant mortality with an emphasis on pre-natal care. The program, ‘The Strong Baby’ Campaign’s 6th ad launch was highlighted at the press conference. Also pictured is Kia Brazil, mother of Strong Baby, Madyson Dixon, featured in the ad, and Dr. Ron Cisler, director of Center for Urban Population Health and primary investigator of the Public Health Impact Initiative that funded the strong baby campaign. (Photo by Robert A. Bell)

It’s a societal truth: not everyone is born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth. And, in Milwaukee, there are far too many pockets of extreme poverty where quality of life issues impact health. Health disparities exist in our community far too often, and it’s going to take a cohesive effort on the part of concerned citizens to foster change.

Disparities in premature births, infant mortality, smoking rates, and access to medical and dental care and healthy food are just a few community problems that plague our community. Although the observance of National Minority Health Month concludes in a few days, the issue of healthcare inequity looms heavily over our community beckoning us to remain diligent in addressing these disparities. Why should you care? Because everyone deserves to live in a healthy environment and have access to quality healthcare. And, because directly or indirectly, it concerns everyone.

When groups of individuals, particularly minority and impoverished communities, are plagued with problems such as premature births, infant mortality, tobacco addiction, food deserts, and barriers to health care and more, it affects the overall quality of life of our community and of future generations. When the situation becomes dire and indigent people finally access healthcare through emergency centers, ultimately everyone pays anyway. Why not develop a proactive, preventive system that works?

High premature births and infant mortality rates among Southeast Wisconsin’s African American population must be addressed, along with the underlying issues that cause these phenomena.

In a message from Commissioner of Health Bevan Baker in the 2010 City of Milwaukee Fetal Infant Mortality Review (FIMR) Report, Commissioner Baker noted “[improving] access to and quality of women’s healthcare, prenatal care and mental health care, [improving] screening and treatment for maternal infections and maternal chronic conditions, [helping] women and their families quit smoking and [explaining], [promoting] and [supporting] ‘safe sleep’ practices” as issues that need to be addressed to reduce infant mortality in Milwaukee. Baker was referring to socioeconomic determinates of health such as poverty, unemployment, high school graduation rates and disenfranchisement.

Smoking rates among minority populations also contribute to increased disease and death in communities, and tobacco advertisements are also a contributing factor.

Some organizations are proactively addressing the social and physical factors contributing to poor health outcomes among minorities. Will Allen’s Growing Power‘s vertical farm provides fresh, locally grown food to communities in need, and it empowers the community. Youth and adults go to Growing Power to learn about agriculture and healthy lifestyles. And, community organizations like Walnut Way Conservation Corp. are using urban-ecology- based initiatives such as creating and managing multiple community gardens, conducting profitable produce sales and providing education on gardening and nutrition. This resident-driven neighborhood organization meets in a restored, former drug house to provide neighbors with education, information and socialization. The Milwaukee Bicycle Collective is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization supporting community fitness by providing access to bicycle transportation for Milwaukee central city residents.

These are just a few examples of simple, innovative, community-based initiatives that are helping combat such healthcare concerns as diet and exercise, but more needs to be done. We must act now to identify ways to work collaboratively to develop other community-focused initiatives that will help residents have better health outcomes. Everyone deserves to live in a healthy environment, have access to quality healthcare and an opportunity to live a healthy lifestyle.

Lorraine Lathen is president of Jump at the Sun Consultants, LLC and project director for the Wisconsin African American Tobacco Prevention Network.