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Eliminating racial disparities in health

February 5, 2004

Photo of David Satcher with Human Sexuality Studies Program director Gilbert HerdtEven college students can play a vital role in the fight to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health by following a few simple steps to safeguard their own health, said former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher during a Feb. 2 visit to SFSU.

Exercise regularly. Eat well. Don't smoke. And be responsible in your sexual behavior, Satcher told a multicultural audience of more than 300 students during a campus talk to mark African American Heritage Month also known as Black History Month.

"You have the opportunity to make a difference in your health," he said.

As the 16th surgeon general and U.S. assistant secretary for health from 1998-2001, Satcher led the department's effort to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in health. It is one of the major goals of Healthy People 2010, the program that sets the country's health agenda for the next 10 years. And the country's former top health official also continues to promote issues of sexual health and responsible sexual behavior.

During his talk, Satcher, who now directs the National Center for Primary Care at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, noted that wide disparities in health persist for people of color in the United States. The problem is especially acute in the areas of infant mortality, heart disease and diabetes. For example, African Americans have a 2 1/2 times greater mortality rate during the first year of birth than whites.

Dramatic disparities also exist in HIV/AIDS rates. "In the beginning, AIDS was known as an illness of white gay men, but now African Americans make up 50 percent of all the new infections. It is a lack of education that is contributing to the problem," he said.

Satcher said one solution calls for creating more diversity in the health care system to break down barriers that keep minorities from seeking adequate health care.

"We need doctors, nurses and counselors who speak the language of their patients, who understand the culture and who are sensitive to the needs of their patients," said Satcher, who pointed out that that only 10 percent of health care professionals are ethnic minorities while people of color now make up 30 percent of the country's population.

Satcher said minority physicians, for example, are more likely to care for the uninsured, serve in underserved communities or see Medicaid patients. "That's why we need more of you students who look like America in the sciences, in nursing and in mental health counseling," he said.

Satcher, featured speaker at SFSU last year for the opening of the Human Sexuality Studies Department's National Sexuality Resource Center, said he works hard to promote issues of sexual health and responsible sexual behavior because of some alarming statistics. He noted that there are 15 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases a year, with four million coming from teenagers.

"This goes back to a lack of education on sexuality and being secure about making the right decision at the right time about sex," said Satcher, adding that a comprehensive sex education program fosters respect for diversity in sexual orientation.

Satcher's campus visit was sponsored by the Office of the President, the Human Sexuality Studies Program, the National Sexuality Resource Center, the Richard Oakes Multicultural Center and A.S. Performing Arts and Lectures.

-- Ted DeAdwyler


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