What are Health Disparities?

According to the CDC, health disparities are “preventable differences in the burden of disease, injury, violence, or opportunities to achieve optimal health that are experienced by socially disadvantaged populations.” While these disparities are primarily viewed through the lens of race and ethnicity, they occur due to a wide range of factors. Disparities can occur due to age, socioeconomic status, geography, gender, language, citizenship status, disability status, and sexual identity and orientation.

One of the most urgent health disparities in the United States is that caused by race and ethnicity. Life expectancy among African Americans was four years lower than Caucasians in a 2018 study by the CDC. Other major disparities are those that occur due to socioeconomic factors and sexual identity. Low-income people often report worse health than higher income individuals, while LGBTQ+ individuals are experiencing disparities at a higher rate each year.

Social Determinants of Health

While most know a person’s health is partly influenced by genetics, social determinants of health make a huge impact as well. According to the World Health Organization, social determinants of health are “the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. These circumstances are shaped by the distribution of money, power and resources at global, national and local levels.” All these factors and genetics play a large role in our health.

Some examples of these social determinants include job opportunities, health insurance, living wages, quality of education, workplace safety, food security, clean water and air, safe and affordable housing, and other factors.

Health Disparities in Mississippi

Mississippi has some of the highest rates of health disparities in the United States. According to the Mississippi State Department of Health (MSDH), “Mississippi ranks last, or close to last, in almost every leading health outcome. In Mississippi and nationwide, these health disparities are significantly worse for those who have systematically faced obstacles to health due to their socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, geographic location, and other characteristics historically linked to discrimination or exclusion.”

While the overall health of Mississippians has long been poor, the statistics are telling when broken down by social groups.

For continuity, these statistics focus on rates of obesity between various groups. All these statistics come from the MSDH’s Annual Mississippi Health Disparities and Inequities Report of December 2018, the latest report given on health disparities in Mississippi from the department. The full report can be accessed HERE.

Racial Disparities 

43.7% of African Americans are obese compared to 31% of Caucasians.  

Gender Disparities 

37.2% of Mississippi women are obese compared to 33.9% of men.

Annual Household Income Disparities

43.1% of those who earn $15,000 or less annually are obese compared to 32.2% of those who earn $50,000 or more annually.

Education Disparities

38.2% of those who have completed some high school are obese compared to 30.9% of those who are college graduates.

The Effect of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is a clear indicator of health disparities in the United States as a whole. As of October 4, 2021, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found, on average, the percent of Caucasians who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (54%) was 1.2 times higher than the rate for African Americans (46%) and 1.1 times higher than the rate for Hispanic people (51%).

Compared to Caucasians, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are 1.7 times more likely to be diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are 1.1 and 1.9 times more likely to be diagnosed, respectively.

When it comes to deaths and hospitalizations caused by the virus, the disparity becomes even more clear. Native Americans are 3.5 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.4 times more likely to die from COVID-19. African Americans are 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2 times more likely to die. Hispanics or Latinos are 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.3 times more likely to die.

The answer is clear. There is no biological basis for why these certain ethnic groups are more at risk to develop and die from COVID-19. This is a social issue that effects disadvantaged groups in the United States.

Achieving Health Equity

The opposite of health disparities is health equity. The CDC defines health equity as “when every person has the opportunity to attain his or her full health potential and no one is disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.” But how do we achieve health equity in Mississippi?