More research needs to be done on Black health

by Patrick Hunter
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Many years ago, before the Internet became a thing, I considered doing a newsletter about Black people’s health. I considered calling it: Not the Same under the Skin”, or something like that.
My concern for doing something like this was not because I am a healthcare professional, which I am not. The concern was largely inspired by the knowledge that sickle cell disease affects persons of African descent and very little appeared to be done about it. Soon, more information started to emerge about other diseases, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, conditions which showed up more often and more seriously among Black people.
The newsletter would have also encouraged increased consideration for research in these and other areas that proportionally affect the Black population.
Where I grew up in Jamaica, although there was a nurse in the area, the nearest doctor was miles away. Many illnesses and many other non-urgent medical cases were treated through word-of-mouth suggestions, based on previous experiences of a neighbour, and with locally collected “bush” that it was believed had curative applications. In those days, as a young boy, I didn’t know anything about sickle cell, high blood pressure, diabetes or many other maladies that are prevalent among the Black population.
Thankfully, we are now seeing more attention being paid to the differences in the treatment of White health matters and Black health matters. There is more research apparently being done, largely in the United States, for sickle cell, for example. But there is still a long way to go to find a cure.
Recently, the Toronto Star published a story of an African American woman who, through her own research, discovered that she was left off a kidney transplant list for four years due to a “biased test” which “kept thousands of Black people from getting a kidney transplant”. There have now been restorative procedures put in place to reassess potential candidates for transplant.
“Between March 2023 and mid-March (2024), more than 14,300 Black kidney transplant candidates have had their wait times modified by an average of two years…” the Star’s article quotes the United Network for Organ Sharing.
There have been other articles which tell of Black mothers who did not survive childbirth. The story of Serena Williams’ near-death experience at the birth of her first child certainly brought attention to some of the problems faced in the U.S. by new mothers.
A couple of years ago I did a column on my experience with prostrate cancer. That awakened me to how prevalent this type of cancer is in Black men. The Walnut Foundation, founded in 2007, has made it their mission to bring the message home to Black men especially to get tested early. The Prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test is a blood test used to detect the level of PSA protein.
Here, in Canada, we don’t often get this kind of information. Part of the reason, of course, is the reluctance, or resistance, to collect race-based statistics. Treatment has been, and probably still is, based on research that has not been conducted within a diverse population. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the results based on research within the majority population should be good enough for all. Occasionally, the information ekes out that Black people are more susceptible than White people in a number of health issues.
The Star also recently reported on an online course which sets out to bring to the attention of medical professionals some of the systemic biases they may bring to their practise. The Black Health Education Collaborative is based at the University of Toronto and Dalhousie University.
It is easy to assume that if one goes to a Black or other racialized doctor, that one would get the kind of attention to details that are missed by a White doctor. It is possible, but unless you undertake to do your own research, one cannot be sure.
It has increasingly been reported that there is a shortage of family or general practitioners. When my mother’s family physician died, the search was on for a replacement. As I was hoping to find a Black physician, I went to the TAIBU Community Health Centre. The wait-time for attention was formidable. It never happened.
Through Health Care Connect, a government agency, we were able to engage with a family practitioner. We were told that, at the time, there were no Black practitioners listed in their database accepting new patients.
There is a historical connection to our health condition of today. The conditions under which our ancestors lived and the influences they may have had on our DNA may be an explanation of the differences – why our maladies may be different from those of the White population. But there is also the fact that the differences in the physiology of Black people may have been, at least, underrated, at worse, ignored. Until that gap is closed, we will need to continue to be more vocal in presenting our case for better, more focused attention.
Email: pa**************@gm***.com / X – @pghntr

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