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In Howard County, black infants die at twice the rate as white infants, report shows

The 2020 Vision for Health in Howard County report was publicly released Thursday at the Howard County Local Health Improvement Coalition meeting.
The 2020 Vision for Health in Howard County report was publicly released Thursday at the Howard County Local Health Improvement Coalition meeting. (Ana Faguy / Baltimore Sun Media)

A report released Thursday by the Horizon Foundation showed increasing racial disparities in health among Howard County residents.

The 2020 Vision for Health in Howard County report, which used county and state data to point out problems in Howard, was publicly released Jan. 30 at the Howard County Local Health Improvement Coalition meeting.

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The report was separated into four categories: prenatal care and infant health, chronic disease, mental health and advance care planning.

Nikki Highsmith Vernick, president and CEO of the Horizon Foundation, presented the findings of the report, followed by three panelists who shared their perspectives as county advocates for their minority communities.

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“What you will find in this report is that our community is facing striking and persistent disparities in health. Even in Howard County, your race, your ZIP code and other demographic factors can determine your health in unfair ways,” Highsmith Vernick said.

“Through this report, we are trying to re-frame the conversation on racial equity in health. We are looking at the root causes and systems and structures that contribute to and reinforce these disparities.”

According to the report, black infants in Howard County died at more than double the rate of white infants in five of the past six years of available data. The Maryland Department of Health found that from 2014 to 2018, there were 102 infant deaths in Howard County.

In Howard County, there were 23 infant deaths in 2018; six of those were white, 11 were black and two were Hispanic, according to the Maryland Department of Health, with the rest being other.

Larry Walker, deputy pastor at Celebration Church in Columbia and one of the panelists, believes more programs with the same attendees are not the answer. Walker said he wants to see changing policies and practices.

“There are a number of issues that we have to begin to deal with from a policy perspective because the policies begin to inform behavior and change the behavior of the people who have the greatest opportunity for these programs,” Walker said.

The report also found that heart disease, which county and state data says is a leading cause of death in the county, is killing black residents at a rate higher than any other race. From 2015 to 2017, the age-adjusted mortality rate for heart disease per 100,000 black residents was 132.8, while the next highest was white residents at 113.2.

The Horizon Foundation report said in 2017 black patients were four times as likely as white patients to be seen for diabetes in the emergency department and three times as likely as white patients to be seen in the emergency department for high blood pressure.

In 2017, the age-adjusted rate of visits to the emergency department for diabetes per 100,000 residents was 309.8 for black residents and 73.5 for white residents.

“The health department is already working with partners to address many of the disparities outlined in the report. Two examples are diabetes and infant mortality,” said Dr. Maura Rossman, Howard County health officer. “Our goal is to continue to work with community stakeholders to achieve health equity among all populations in the county.”

Suicide was the leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 19 in Howard County from 2014 to 2016, according to the report. Self-reported student surveys used in the report found that Latina teens and young women are at the most risk of depression and planning suicide.

“Mental health discussions in general for the Latino community are very difficult. There is a lot of taboo and stigma involved; there is a lot of shame and embarrassment,” said Patricia Silva, a former co-president of the county’s Latin American Council and one of the meeting’s panelists.

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Fifty percent of Latina high school students reported feeling sad and hopeless to the point of stopping their usual activities.

In the final section of the report, advance care planning, the Horizon Foundation found that 82% of Asian members of Howard County did not have a signed advance directive.

Jonathan Ahn, a Korean American immigrant and community leader, agreed with the report and said this could be attributed to language barriers, cultural differences or mistrust in the health care system.

“The inequity problem is huge. No single individual organization or individual can take on this problem because it’s been embedded deeply into our system and into our policies and into our institutions,” Ahn said.

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