Public health practitioners have long championed the health needs of underserved and impoverished communities. Despite these efforts, the disparities in health among U.S. social groups continue to widen. Today, African Americans die from HIV/AIDS at a rate seven times higher than non-Hispanic white Americans. One of every two American Indian babies born today will develop diabetes. Families living in poverty have shorter life expectancies and are at higher risk for cancer, diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease. American men are four times more likely to die from firearms than women. And the infant mortality rate is almost double for mothers with fewer than 12 years of education compared with those with an education of 13 or more years.
Health disparities are the differences in health status that occur by gender, race or ethnicity, education or income, disability, geographic location, and sexual orientation. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services made eliminating health disparities a top priority and included it as one of two overarching goals in its report Healthy People 2010.
But the battle to eliminate health disparities is challenging and complex. Multiple factors that affect marginalized communities are often associated and difficult to study independently. Measuring ethnicity and race may also prove to be problematic. “As academics, can we separate experience from race?” says SPH associate professor Beth Virnig. “Moreover, can we separate culture from race?” Working within these ethnic or racial communities poses additional obstacles. Despite these challenges, SPH faculty members are passionate about their work and have made significant advances toward reducing health disparities and improving the lives of all Americans.