ANNAPOLIS – The death rate for African Americans is higher than that for whites throughout Maryland, where the population of blacks and other minorities continues to grow, and combined may constitute half the state’s population by 2010.
These were among the findings of a state report on the relative health of minorities in Maryland. The report, which surveyed Baltimore City and all but two of the state’s 23 counties, found that affluent Talbot County on the Eastern Shore has the largest gap between the death rates for non-Hispanic whites and African Americans.
The death rate for blacks was almost 70 percent higher than that for non-Hispanic whites in Talbot County, the state’s third wealthiest by per capita income. The gap was narrowest – less than 5 percent – in rapidly suburbanizing Charles County.
Dr. David Mann, epidemiologist for the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities stressed the report was not trying to “point a finger at one county.”
“The problem exists in every county,” he said during a presentation Thursday to Maryland legislators.
Overall, the Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities reported that in the 22 jurisdictions measured, the African American death rate exceeded the non-Hispanic white death rate by a little more than 30 percent.
Mann said that it is important to note that a small disparity between the races doesn’t necessarily mean “that everybody is healthy.” Rather, it means that the death rates for the races are merely similar.
Case in point: Baltimore City. The city had a high death rate for both blacks and whites, but with a relatively narrow disparity of about 25 percent between the races. Twelve jurisdictions had larger disparities than Baltimore City.
Mann said the study proves that the disparity between races is not “just an urban problem.”
The analysis used data spanning 2001 to 2003 and adjusted the death rates to account for age. The death rate is the number of deaths per 100,000 people. The only two counties not measured were Garrett and Allegany, where the population of African Americans was too small to yield significant data.
“It is disgraceful that there is such a discrepancy,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of Maryland’s Citizens Health Initiative, an advocacy group. He said the best way to narrow the gap would be “to achieve affordable health care.”
The study projected that by 2010, minorities – including Hispanics, Asians and African Americans – could be 50 percent of Maryland’s population if the pace of growth continues. In 2004, the minority population grew 1.7 percent, making the state almost 40 percent minority.
The portion of the report measuring death rates focused only on whites and African Americans, however.
Experts cited a number of reasons to explain the difference in death rates between whites and blacks: availability of health insurance, differences in diet and exercise patterns, and even availability of transportation to health care providers.
Still, the size of the disparity in death rates between blacks and whites in Talbot County was far higher than in any other jurisdiction and was something of a puzzle to experts. Talbot County, with a population of about 35,000, is 15 percent African American.
Gloria Dill, director of nursing for the Talbot County Health Department, said the county hopes to determine the economic and social reasons for the disparity.
The department started working with African American churches to help promote healthier lifestyles in the community before these numbers were compared, she said.
Dr. John Ryan, a retired public health physician who volunteers for the Talbot County Health Department, said that study needs to look at more years before it can be determined if this is truly a trend in the county. “The most important thing is to get the public health message out there,” he said. “We need to do all that, regardless of the numbers.”