African women’s healthcare under colonial white power

PHILADELPHA–Over the next several issues of The Burning Spear newspaper, I will be sharing some of the challenges facing African women over age 40. We will discuss leading health issues, including the top five causes of death and disability, their causes, impact on quality of life, and an exploration of solutions, with much emphasis on self-care and self-healing.
The discussions come from both a professional and personal perspective, as I am an African mother and grandmother, physician and health educator in midlife. I am currently, or have recently, confronted some of these very same health challenges.
Why examine the health concerns of women over 40? It is in midlife when African women get diagnosed with many of the more serious and debilitating health problems. Our well-being as a demographic is crucial because African women at this stage of our lives are at our peak emotionally, maturationally, and professionally.
We are vital to the functioning of our communities. As mothers, teachers, activists and leaders, our presence and well-being are essential.
It is both strategic and sensible to improve the health of this group because doing so corresponds to better outcomes for others in their sphere of influence. Once Grandmother is on the road to better health, she’s going to improve the conditions of those around her, for example: her children and grandchildren. The result is a positive impact that is multigenerational.1  
Health Disparities
Are you familiar with the expression, “When White folks cough, Black folks have pneumonia”? We will use this simple yet powerful allegory in our discussion of health disparities.
The National Institute of Health defines health disparities as “… gaps in the quality of health and health care that mirror differences in socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic background, and education level.”2
While Africans in general suffer from the same health problems as the rest of the population of the United States, the issue of disparity becomes crystal clear when comparing the disproportionate numbers of us who suffer and how we more frequently end with negative outcomes.
Consider how world capitalism stacks the deck so that inequities inherent in this system produce the most damaging results to Africans and other colonized peoples. We see clearly how health disparity is manifested through overall bad health, poor quality of life and early death.
Top five health challenges for Africans and women over 40
In 2011, the average American could expect to live 78.7 years, while the average African in America could only expect to live 75.3 years, compared with 78.8 years for the average white American.3
African women have higher rates of many illnesses, and by age 40, struggle disproportionately with diseases like hypertension, breast and other cancers, diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and lupus.
We identify the top five most pervasive diseases that plague African women in the United States:
1. Cancers
In African women, the most common cancers are breast (34 percent) and lung (13 percent). 
Africans in the United States continue to be less likely than whites to survive five years at each stage of diagnosis for most cancer sites. “Much of the difference in survival is believed to be due to barriers that prevent timely and high-quality medical care, including lack of education and economic disparities, which results in later stage diagnosis.”4
2. Heart Disease
Heart disease is the second leading cause of death for African women over 40; nearly twice as many die from heart disease each year as white women; 46 percent suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease.5
African women are disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS and by 2012 it was considered a leading cause of death for African women. The rate of new HIV infections among African women in the U.S. is 15 times that of white women, and over three times the rate among Latina women.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 32 African women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with HIV in her lifetime!6
4. Diabetes and Hypertension
3.7 million (14.7 percent) of all Africans in the U.S. aged 30 or older have diabetes and are 1.5 times more likely to contract diabetes than whites. We also develop high blood pressure more often, and at an earlier age, than other ethnic groups. More than 45 percent of black women live with the condition. Research has shown that 85 percent of medical visits by black women are due to high blood pressure.7
5. Adult Obesity
Africans in the U.S., particularly females over 40, have the highest rates of obesity in this country. There is a 51 percent higher prevalence of obesity compared with whites. 53 percent of black women and 36 percent of black men are obese!8
Begin to overturn these conditions
There must be a better understanding of the causes of these illnesses and the determinants of good health. After reviewing these statistics it’s clear how the advent of capitalism impacts African people within U.S. borders.
The health of our people has been in jeopardy since we were first taken from the African continent and exploited for the sole benefit of white oppressors. We must recognize that the conditions of Africans within imperialist centers are part and parcel of the health inequalities that exist for African people all over the world; which is a result of our reality as colonized peoples.
In the coming issues, we will examine those illnesses that are preventable. We will then discuss some disease attributable to genetics or environmental causes and determine what we can do to improve our outcomes. Finally, we will invite the readers to join in when we discuss “Western” and “non-Western” approaches to health and wellness, which will undoubtedly deepen our understanding of capitalist exploitation.
We want you to share your experiences with either or both.
Ultimately, our objective is to become agents of our own wellness. Doing so means involvement in every aspect of your health: the physical, mental and spiritual.
It is your responsibility if you’re serious about revolution. It begins with you!
Stay tuned…
Michelle Strongfields, MD, is Director and Founder of IAMM Science Education Group, devoted to insuring the increased representations of youth of color in the sciences. She has more than 30 years experience as an educator, physician and advocate of quality health care and the elimination of health disparity. She has trained and worked in the U.S., Cuba, South America, Africa and throughout the Caribbean. She is a professor of Anatomy and Physiology, a community health advocate and health consultant. She is a longtime associate of the Philadelphia Black Women’s Health Alliance and the National Black Women’s Health Imperative, and an active participant in the Imperative’s longitudinal study of Black women’s health in the United States. She has lead the training of community health workers in the U.S. and abroad, and is associated with the Health Committee of the All African People’s Development and Empowerment Program (AAPDEP), led by her daughter, Dr. Aisha Fields, PhD. A wife, proud mother of four and grandmother of five, Dr. Strongfields believes that good physical, mental and spiritual health is a divine human right.


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