To our good health

Jun. 26, 2014 @ 06:36 PM

There is irony in our city’s evolving into a City of Medicine when its early waves of growth and prosperity were founded on producing a crop and manufacturing products that we came later to know were responsible for millions of deaths.

That irony continues – in a very, very good way – with accolades such as that just accorded Durham by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation named the city one of six to receive an RWJF Culture of Health Prize.

It is an encouraging tribute to the efforts many groups and institutions have launched in recent years to improve our health, and to those thousands of residents who have responded.

“These communities are inspiring examples of what is possible when all sectors work together so that every resident has the opportunity to live a long and healthy life,” the foundation’s president and CEO, Risa Livizo-Mourey, said this week. 

In recognizing Durham, the foundation pointed to innovative strategies to improve health, including collaboration between organizations to increase access to medical care, coordinated planning to create a healthier environment and a focus on education and poverty.

The award cited the county Department of Public Health’s work to promote neighborhood-based exercise and encourage neighborhood corner groceries to stock healthier food. Our burgeoning farmers’ market scene and innovative community agriculture programs benefit our overall health.

Still, even as we celebrate, we should realize we still have far to go to improve health throughout the community. Early childhood obesity is up nearly 80 percent since 2000, for example, and increased obesity remains a challenge through virtually all age groups. Two-thirds of adults in Durham County are overweight or obese.

Many of our health challenges are related to our relatively high poverty rates –rates stubbornly high despite the affluence that also characterizes our county.

Nearly one in seven Durham residents lives in poverty. And, according to the county’s latest Community Health Assessment, “People with higher incomes, more years of education, and a healthy and safe environment to live in have better health outcomes and generally have longer life expectancies.”

Those outcomes are especially difficult to achieve for the two-thirds of female single-parent families with children under 5, for example.

We know these grim figures, and powerful and influential people and institutions are clearly dissatisfied with them. The health summits the Duke Health System and the county health department have spearheaded, Mayor Bill Bell’s call to action on poverty, targeted programs like the East Durham Children’s Initiative all illustrate we are not willing to accept an unhealthy city and county.

Gayle Harris, Durham County’s public health director who has been an instigator, an evangelist or both for many initiatives that impressed the Robert Wood Johnson foundation, is optimistic.

“As we continue to work together as ‘one Durham,’ there is no health disparity that we can’t overcome,” she said in responding to the award.

That’s true, but it will take all the efforts we’ve invested and more to reach that goal.