The Black Infant Health Center has helped reduce the African-American infant mortality rate in Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The Black Infant Health Center has helped reduce the African-American infant mortality rate in Berkeley. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A new report on the health status of Berkeley residents reveals significant racial and ethnic health inequities across all age groups. In a special City Council session on Oct. 29, Public Health Officer Dr. Janet Berreman encouraged the council to develop plans to eliminate the racial disparities, which mirror national trends.

Although the report calls Berkeley — one of three cities in California with its own public health division — a “healthy community overall,” it emphasizes the marked difference in health status and mortality rates between racial groups. An African American living in Berkeley is twice as likely as a white resident to die in any given year and the gap appears to be widening, the report found.

The Berkeley Health Status Report, which the Public Health division last conducted in 2007, is based on data culled from California Department of Public Health studies, the U.S. Census and state health surveys. The report evaluates city data in the context of health goals set by Healthy People 2020 (HP2020), a ten-year federal initiative launched in 2010 that aims to identify and address the nation’s health priorities.

In many categories, Berkeley meets the HP2020 goals overall but racial minority groups do not. Berkeley as a whole meets the national goals for infant prematurity and cancer death rates, for example, but the African American population has much higher rates. The black population also has disproportionately high rates for all major chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, the report found.

Ramona Benson, coordinator of Berkeley’s Black Infant Health Program (BIH) — whose clients participate in prenatal and post-partum support groups and health education workshops — said her program has made leaps in reducing the disparity, but still has a way to go. The BIH program was developed in response to a 1991 report that found African American women in Berkeley were four times as likely to have low birth weight infants as their white counterparts. Now, they are 2.5 times as likely and meet the HP2020 goal.

Heart 2 Heart (H2H), Berkeley’s high blood pressure prevention initiative, was also created in response to a previous health status report. Program coordinator Katherine Brown said H2H’s mobile health van and workshops in barbershops and salons foster community health in South Berkeley.

Non-white child asthma rates are higher in Berkeley than Alameda County as a whole

Berreman, who has worked at Public Health for seven years, said H2H is another example of a city initiative that is successfully chipping away at racial health inequity in Berkeley by “literally and figuratively meeting residents where they are,” but said any level of discrepancy is unacceptable.

The racial inequities highlighted in the report are hardly unique to Berkeley and often affect people across all income levels, Berreman said. The significant racial health disparities found in nearly all categories in the report are “rooted in the long history of racial inequality in this country,” Berreman said.

“It’s pretty clear that racism and classism are major factors in what we’re seeing here,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Councilmember Susan Wengraf called the report’s findings “fascinating but sobering.” Pointing to some of the particularly significant racial inequities such as the asthma hospitalization rates, she said, “I want to know the ‘why.’”

Chart: Health Staus Report 2013
Although are cardiovascular death rates are down, rates for African Americans remain far higher than for whites and Latinos

Various environmental and social factors can contribute to racial health disparities, Berreman said. Children who live in proximity to freeways in houses with moisture problems, or children whose parents have never received culturally appropriate medical materials, are more likely to end up hospitalized for asthma than children with educated parents in less congested neighborhoods, she said.

The 2013 Health Status Report is the first to be released under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Berreman said the ACA “can only be a positive for our population,” but warned that its benefits depend on educating Berkeley residents who are newly eligible for health insurance.

“The Health Status Report is a tool and a starting point,” Berreman said.

Mobile asthma clinic makes its debut at Berkeley school (10.22.12)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...