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Top Health Stories of 2016

As we turn the page on 2016, we pause to take a look at some of the most important health stories for black folks that bubbled to the surface this year. Here’s our top 10, in no particular order:

  1. The Affordable Care Act has helped minorities and low-wage workers in major ways, insuring some 20 million previously uninsured people. Access to affordable health care has helped ease some of the health disparities we face. But this progress could be undone following Donald Trump’s election in November. He campaigned on repealing the ACA—and included it on his list of immediate action items once he takes office in late January. The how of the repeal is still unclear as 2016 comes to a close.
  2. Black women in this country have five times the rates of HIV infection as their white and Latina counterparts. This despite being less sexually risky than women of other races. Experts suggest high rates of mass incarceration among black men—and their lack of access to health care once they are released from prison—are helping drive these HIV numbers. According to a report from the Sentencing Project: “People of color make up 37 percent of the U.S. population but 67 percent of the prison population. Overall, African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted, they are more likely to face stiff sentences. Black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated as white men and Hispanic men are more than twice as likely to be incarcerated as non-Hispanic white men.”
  3. Two celebrities—Kid Cudi and Kanye West—had public breakdowns this year, and in the process, helped shine a much-needed spotlight on mental health and black men. As summer drew to a close, Kid Cudi announced he was entering a treatment center to get a handle on major depression and suicidal thoughts, and West was admitted to UCLA’s Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital in November for what was termed mental exhaustion. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, we are 10 percent more likely to report having psychological distress than our white counterparts. But it is still a taboo topic in our community.
  4. If we don’t participate in clinical trials, we can’t reap the benefits of medical research. Sounds so simple, yet the problem of lack of diversity in clinical trials has a long history. Sure, there’s lip service to changing this; big pharma is the latest to step into the fray with big promises. We hope they’re sincere, but we’re not betting our first-born children. Why not? Twenty years ago, 5 percent of clinical trials participants were ethnic minorities. That number remains at 5 percent on the eve of 2017.
  5. Regular physical activity is a large component of a healthy lifestyle. But if you have heart disease or diabetes, do you know how much you should exercise? Do you know which exercises are best for you to combat a chronic condition? This year doctors, led by the National Medical Association, got specific about the kind and amount of physical activity they wanted to see their patients do. Their Prescription for Exercise initiative urged physicians to include activity, alongside nutrition and necessary medications, as part of their treatment plans for their patients.
  6. We lost journalism icon Gwen Ifill to endometrial cancer in November. Just as she blazed trails in the journalism industry, becoming a role model for thousands of African Americans and women in the newsroom, so, too, is she highlighting, even in death, the dangers of this reproductive cancer. Researchers from Wayne State University’s Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit found endometrial tumors increased among all racial and ethnic groups, but they were up the most, 2.5 percent, among black women. Our survival rates are pretty dismal, too.
  7. Flint, Michigan, made news early this year when officials admitted a cost-cutting measure had allowed the city’s waterways to become contaminated with lead. An investigation into wrongdoing was quietly closed earlier this month. Meanwhile, the city’s residents are still making do with bottled water and water filters. The crisis has forced us to look at what’s going on nationwide. A Reuters study of lead testing results across the United States found almost 3,000 areas with poisoning rates far higher than in Flint.
  8. For the first time in decades, life expectancy in the U.S. dipped, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that death rates from eight of the top 10 causes of death, including heart disease and stroke, rose in 2015. It may sound like a cliche, but prevention is key.
  9. Reporting on health is often a frustrating endeavor; we’re more likely to suffer chronic diseases, have higher death rates—or both. Sometimes, however, good news appears on the horizon. That’s what happened near year’s end with word of a new drug to fight sickle cell disease. Results of an early trial showed the drug—labeled SelG1 for now—reduced episodes of sickle cell-related pain crises by 45 percent. It’s the first new medication for people with this disease in nearly two decades.
  10. Obesity is a nationwide epidemic, but it has hit the black community, particularly our women, especially hard. Sometimes the “drop those pounds, now!” drumbeat is so loud, it becomes overwhelming. So we applaud a study showing that even a small weight loss—as little as 5 percent of body weight—can bring big benefits. In easy-to-measure terms: If you weigh 200 pounds, shedding 10 pounds and keeping it off can improve your health significantly.
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