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Discussions surrounding health disparities within minority communities continuously focus on two issues: high percentages of heart disease and diabetes rates.

The gaze is usually offset from a silent killer for Black and Hispanic adults over the ages of 65 and older – pneumococcal pneumonia. According to the CDC, pneumococcal disease kills about 18,000 adults 65 years or older.

On Friday morning, over 100 journalists gathered at the joint conferences for the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists to listen to three leading health professionals of color.

Dr. Freda Lewis-Hall, Pfizer’s Chief Medical Officer; Dr. Jorge Rodriguez, a certified internist and regular contributor on The Doctors; and Dr. Regina Benjamin, a former U.S. Surgeon General and chair of the National Prevention Council, addressed the crowd about the importance of vaccinations to protect older adults in disenfranchised communities from contracting serious, but preventable diseases. 

“When you ask most adults over the age of 65 why they haven’t been vaccinated, they respond with, ‘I didn’t know,” said Dr. Lewis-Hall.

The response, she says, shows that awareness and disseminating correct information is key to lowering the staggering numbers of minority adults over the age of 65 who have yet to be vaccinated.

According to the Office of Minority Health, when it comes to receiving the vaccination for pneumonia, Hispanic adults aged 65 and older were 45.2 percent less likely to have ever received the pneumonia shot, while Blacks were at 49.8 percent.

Factors are lengthy and complicated and centered on a variety of variables, including access to preventive care, economics, and language barriers.

According to the doctors, both communities, who are oftentimes heavily centered on religion, find that patents shun science in favor of the belief that their faith will deliver them from illness.

“I see myself also as an instrument of God, and I’m brought here to help and if your religious belief is that God is here to protect you, then I’m here to help,” Dr. Rodriguez said.

Dr. Benjamin sees the church as a bridging factor and an advocate to preventative health. “We work really closely with the faith-based communities and many of them were very helpful in getting our initiatives out that were based on science,” she said. “Science and religion can co-exist.”

Regional disparities also exist due to the lack of preventive health care access in rural areas, such as Louisiana and areas close to the Gulf of Mexico.

But a major underlying element, which affects Black and Hispanics, is a lack of trust. America’s medical history reveals a lengthy history where doctors and research have failed these communities, sometimes using them as guinea pigs without their knowledge – as shown during the Tuskegee Study and in the case of Henrietta Lacks.

“I think first of all, that is history. It’s history that’s important and should never be forgotten,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “What I think is important is for people of color, and for all people, to be able to find health care professionals that they can identify with and that they can speak to, and the only way of breaking distrust is with experience,” he said.

Dr. Lewis-Hall, Dr. Rodriguez, and Dr. Benjamin addressed the room knowledgeable of the above factors, but resolved that history would not repeat itself with a determined effort to change the minds of the public.

All three doctors wholeheartedly believe that the practice of medicine relies on patient empowerment and access to health education, so that patients are aware of their bodies and its function, keep track of their vaccination schedules, and feel empowered to speak with their physicians if they feel they are not receiving top-notch care.

Cultural sensitivity was also discussed, as Dr. Benjamin stressed the importance for doctors to receive the tactical training exposing them to patients from different ethnicities and backgrounds.

“The health care system is changing, you (doctors) are being paid for your outcomes and that’s an incentive,” she said.

Dr. Rodriguez acknowledges that vaccinations are not “sexy” news items, but insists that medical professionals need the help of journalists, specifically journalists of color, to speak to those undeserved populations.

“You have a chance to make a big difference,” he said addressing the crowd. “We have the ability to do that, but journalists have the ability to do it in droves.”

SOURCE: Office of Minority Health, CDC | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty

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