International ‘Reunion’ Focuses on Medical Family Tree


People of African descent from all over the world converged at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore over the holiday weekend for a “family reunion” to discuss how to fix medical problems on their family tree that have persisted since slavery.

Sonia Sanchez recited a poem she wrote for the International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora. Members of the University of Liberia Alumni Choir lifted their voices in song. Experts highlighted research on chocolate communities from Washington, D.C., to Halifax, Nova Scotia, that will be included in a book on the conference theme, “The Great Scattering: Solving the Puzzle of Slavery, Race and Contemporary Health in the African Diaspora.”

“Those of us living here are part of the diaspora; we’re part of the international family that was transported through the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” said Thomas LaVeist, Ph.D., conference chairman and director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“Some of the same issues that are going on in Baltimore are the same issues that are combatting folks in Brazil, and that is the basis of this conference,” added fellow organizer Daniel L. Howard, Ph.D., executive director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Center for Health Policy at Meharry Medical College, which works in partnership with Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Looking at poverty, a key indicator, or social determinant, of health, Afro-Brazilians are twice as poor as white Brazilians. Similarly, U.S. Census figures show that 20 percent of residents in Baltimore live below the poverty level compared to 8.6 percent of those in the entire state of Maryland. In Washington, the poverty rate is about 35 percent in Ward 8 compared to 18 percent for the rest of the District, according to Neighborhood Info D.C.

Howard pointed out that the highest rates of prostate cancer in the world are in places like eastern North Carolina, Jamaica and Trinidad. LaVeist noted the persistence of lowered life expectancies among people of African descent in port cities that were part of the slave trade.

“We’re constantly bombarded with opportunities to do things that are unhealthy,” said LaVeist, citing lines at fast-food restaurants all over Africa, the Caribbean and the United States. “We need to start counteracting that.”

Some Washingtonians are planting community gardens, creating more farmer’s markets and taking other steps to address food deserts in parts of the city where liquor or foods high in salt and sugar are easier to find than fresh fruits and vegetables.

While the United States is considered a super power, it still lags behind many countries on access to health care, LaVeist and Howard said. Some of this will be addressed in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which the U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld. However, the men are concerned about gaps that will still persist and states that don’t support the Medicaid expansion.

On the other hand, some countries have universal health care, but lack research on disparities and other medical issues. “One of the biggest concerns is that there isn’t documentation,” LaVeist said. “In most of the rest of the diaspora, we don’t really have documentation because many of the countries don’t collect statistics by race.”

“It’s like an invisible problem,” he explained. “We want to be able to help researchers and policy makers who want to bring this problem out of the shadows.”

LaVeist and Howard also suggested an increase in health educators to improve health literacy so that people learn to take better care of themselves before problems set in.

“We need to become more empowered to take care of our own health,” LaVeist said. “It’s not our doctor’s job to keep us healthy.”

International 'Reunion' Focuses on Medical Family Tree

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