Disease Can Discriminate, Too

Now seems as good a time as any to talk about the most deadly racial disparity in America. It’s disease, not how racial minorities are treated by law enforcement personnel.

Early in the COVID-19 epidemic, it became clear the coronavirus was hitting black Americans significantly harder than whites. Here in West Virginia, about 6.6% of the diagnosed cases have been of blacks, though they are just 3.6% of the population.

Nationally, it appears a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths have been among blacks. Though the Centers for Disease Control lacks complete data, it noted that in New York City, the death rate had been 92.3 per 100,000 population for black/African American people, compared to 45.2 for whites and 34.5 for those of Asian ancestry.

But let’s not make COVID-19 the primary villain in racial disparities. We know that some diseases affect blacks more severely than whites. Diabetes is a good example. One year (2017) of CDC vital statistics indicate that the death rate from that malady is about half again as high for blacks as for whites.

Lots of explanations have been advanced for the COVID-19 disparity. One is that NYC blacks with the coronavirus did not receive medical care as good as that accorded to white patients. Obviously, that needs to be explored.

It’s not a persuasive idea, though, for one good reason, involving deaths from heart disease and cancer. The CDC vital statistics numbers indicate that, at least in 2017, both diseases claimed proportionately more white than black lives — though the difference was not very high. The quality-of-medical care argument doesn’t seem to work there.

So, what is going on?

We know health care researchers devote a lot of time to looking into how various diseases affect people of different races. From them, we know there are differences. One example is sickle cell anemia, which overwhelmingly affects black people in the United States.

Back to COVID-19: Researchers need to make it a priority. There will be another viral assault on Americans — and we need to know what segments of the population are most vulnerable. That’s tough to say with viruses, which can vary wildly.

Consider this: In 2017, “regular” influenza and pneumonia killed 43,397 whites in our country — and just 5,556 black Americans. Clearly, that particular virus appears to have been more dangerous to whites.

For all of us, then, we need to be spending more time and energy understanding why some viruses discriminate — and what we can do about it. Tens of thousands of lives may be at stake.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.


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