by Faith Childs | bio

The Black Women’s Health Study, the largest epidemiologic study to date of black women’s health, is being conducted by Boston University School of Medicine in conjunction with Howard University College of Medicine.

Initiated in 1995, the purpose of the study is to examine a large cohort of African American women for the effects of a number of potential health risk factors, among them: diet, obesity, hormone use in menopause, alcohol consumption, physical exercise and effects of oral contraceptives. The results remain confidential.

Nearly 60,000 black women — teachers whose names were gleaned from the rolls of the National Education Association, federal employees, and subscribers to Essence Magazine, the largest circulation black women’s magazine in the United States — agreed voluntarily to participate in the survey. I am one of them.

Every two years, survey participants are required to complete a questionnaire about a variety of health topics. This year’s questionnaire surveyed the frequency and type of health exams, from colonoscopies and sigmoidoscopies to mammograms, dental cleanings and eye exams. Typical queries concern exercise, diet, smoking and alcohol consumption. Occasionally participants are asked to provide clinical samples to the investigators.

Now in its 13th year, the plan is for the study to continue as long as there is both interest and funding for this important work.

The subject of race and medicine is a minefield fraught with spurious science and odd political beliefs, which have occasionally yielded disastrous results. The Tuskegee syphilis study is perhaps the most infamous example, in which the federal government studied the effects of untreated syphilis on black men.

The controversy flared anew in Harriet A. Washington’s treatment of the subject in her book, “Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present,” which was reviewed in The New York Times earlier this year. Washington’s response, along with the responses of other scholars, was published here; there’s also a comprehensive interview with Washington at the “Democracy Now” website.

It has long been acknowledged that certain illnesses affect black women disproportionately. Black women are at a higher risk for diabetes, obesity, lupus, heart disease and stroke (see these detailed statistics compiled by the Society for Women’s Health Research). Our overall risk of breast cancer is lower than that of white women, but the cancer is often more aggressive and the death rate for black women is higher. The black maternal death rate is four times that of white women, and the black infant mortality rate is twice as high.

New research indicates that dealing with racism in everyday life, along with a physician’s possible racial bias, may play a role in the increased risk of illness and the subsequent diagnosis and treatment.

I confess I had my doubts about providing personal information regarding my health to investigators affiliated with the federal government that in the past has used personal information for controversial ends. Yet I recognized that historically black women — and their health problems — have been overlooked, whether intentionally or not, in most health studies. I felt an obligation to support this investigation as it would advance scientific knowledge of an understudied segment of the population.

Only those participants who joined the study during the initial outreach phase are allowed to participate, but one can learn more about this important health initiative by going to the website,

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  • Katie Sullivan August 19, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    Another major problem is the lack of fresh produce and healthy food in many minority communities. Obesity and other health issues are much more difficult to overcome when fast-food restaurants greatly outweigh the number of supermarkets.
    This is yet another public health issue that the Bush administration has failed to address.

  • Dr. Pat Allen August 17, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    For years, women in general were treated as “little men” in drug and disease studies unless the problem was clearly a “female” issue. Assumptions of risk, symptom presentation, drug action and side effects were all based on the male model. Only studies involving thousands of women over multi-year observation were able to provide the insight for the necessity for gender based medicine.
    The Black Women’s Health Study is providing a treasure trove of information that should galvanize politicians interested in improving health care delivery and disease prevention. It is clear from only these few years of observation that such a significant problem as lung cancer and progressive lung disease in black women is related to the increased cigarette advertising aimed at people who live in neighborhoods with higher poverty levels (BWHS Publication List, article #76 for full reference). This is a problem that could be easily addressed if politicians separated themselves totally from Big Tobacco and prevented this advertising.
    It is reassuring to find validation of the impact of exercise on many aspects of health across the income spectrum in this study: less depression, less colon cancer, less cardiovascular disease. I have to ask myself why this information is not being used NOW to develop community-wide programs supporting daily exercise. Think of the lives saved and the improvement in quality of life. This is a grass roots program that could be started nationwide.
    I urge all of you to go to the BWHS website and read about the important work done by the Black Women’s Health Study. Then use this information to insist on change. Thank you, Faith, for your personal participation, your beautiful writing and for your courage and commitment to change.