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The CDC Declares Racism a Public Health Threat

— April 19, 2021

The CDC joins the AMA in announcing that racism is a public health issue.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared racism a serious public health threat, offering steps for addressing it. Prior to CDC’s announcement, according to the American Public Health Association, “more than 170 local and state leaders and public health entities have declared racism a public health crisis or emergency.”

“[I]t affects the health of our entire nation,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, said. “One of the most visible examples currently is found in the pandemic, which, because of racism, has disproportionately affected people of color through structural barriers.  People from ethnic and racial minority groups are at greater risk of getting COVID-19 and of dying from it.”

He added, “The data show that racial and ethnic minority groups, throughout the United States, experience higher rates of illness and death across a wide range of health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, obesity, asthma, and heart disease, when compared to their white counterparts.”

The CDC Declares Racism a Public Health Threat
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

A study by Harvard medical school researchers found that healthcare workers of color were “more likely to care for patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, more likely to report using inadequate protective gear, and nearly twice as likely as white colleagues to test positive for the virus.”  As far as strategies for fighting against racism, Walensky said, “First, the agency is using federal COVID-19 funding to invest in communities of color, as well as other disproportionately affected groups, to address healthcare gaps.”

The American Medical Association (AMA) declared racism a public health threat in November 2020.  AMA Board Member Willarda V. Edwards, M.D., M.B.A. said last fall, “The AMA recognizes that racism negatively impacts and exacerbates health inequities among historically marginalized communities.  Without systemic and structural-level change, health inequities will continue to exist, and the overall health of the nation will suffer.  As physicians and leaders in medicine, we are committed to optimal health for all, and are working to ensure all people and communities reach their full health potential. Declaring racism as an urgent public health threat is a step in the right direction toward advancing equity in medicine and public health, while creating pathways for truth, healing, and reconciliation.”

President Susan R. Bailey, MD, responded to the CDC announcement, saying, “The AMA applauds the CDC for formally recognizing racism as a public health threat, and elevating and sharing the work of the AMA through its new Racism and Health initiative.  The AMA’s House of Delegates [HOD] recognized racism as a public health threat in 2020 and will continue pushing for anti-racist policies and practices so that all people have the power, resources, and opportunities to reach their full health potential.”

In 2018, the AMA also adopted a policy to define health equity, and it developed a framework for moving forward.  The following year, the AMA hired its first chief health equity officer to establish the AMA’s Center for Health Equity to elevate and sustain efforts to address systemic level changes that can improve health.

The AMA stated its policy “opposes all forms of racism as a threat to public health and calls on AMA to take prescribed steps to combat racism, including: (1) acknowledging the harm caused by racism and unconscious bias within medical research and health care; (2) identifying tactics to counter racism and mitigate its health effects; (3) encouraging medical education curricula to promote a greater understanding of the topic; (4) supporting external policy development and funding for researching racism’s health risks and damages; and (5) working to prevent influences of racism and bias in health technology innovation.”


CDC Declares Racism a Serious Public Health Threat

New AMA policy recognizes racism as a public health threat

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