More African Americans Die From COVID-19, Breast Cancer Due To Health Disparities

By Kim Johnson, MD and Theresa Spitzer Smith, Ph.D. | May 11, 2020 | Care, Community
Susan G. Komen recently held a Facebook live about racial health inequities that exist in breast cancer and COVID 19. If you missed it, you can watch it here.

COVID-19 and breast cancer disproportionately impact African Americans in the United States. From the data we’ve seen, African Americans are 40 percent more likely to die from the COVID-19. The same is true for breast cancer – African Americans are more likely to develop aggressive forms of the disease and on average 40 percent more likely to die from it. Given that African Americans only make up 13 percent of the US population, these statistics are staggering and unacceptable.

COVID-19 has shined a light on long existing racial health disparities. And while COVID-19 will eventually fade from the headlines, the historical and current drivers of racial health inequities that impact the African American community will remain. 

Susan G. Komen’s African American Health Equity Initiative (AAHEI) was formed to identity and address the systemic barriers that drive differences in breast cancer outcomes for African Americans. Our work will begin in the 11 U.S. cities where the breast cancer inequities are greatest: Memphis, St. Louis, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Washington, D.C., Tidewater, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Dallas-Fort Worth and Baltimore. These same cities are experiencing similar racial inequities in COVID-19. In seven of the eleven, African Americans account for more than 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths. 

To add to existing knowledge on the drivers of breast cancer inequities, the AAHEI has commissioned landscape analyses for the targeted cities, leveraging both quantitative and qualitative data. These reports will highlight emerging and existing themes, both unique to and shared across cities. 

What is already known is the health disparities, including breast cancer and COVID 19, are rooted in social determinants of health. Social determinants of health are non-medical factors such as employment, income, housing, transportation, childcare, education, discrimination, and the quality of the places where people live, work, learn, worship and play. These determinants result in varying levels of privilege, power and opportunity that have direct links to health disparities. 

There is no question the COVID-19 pandemic has once again amplified racial health inequities in our country. The headlines announcing the racial disparities in infection and death rates due to COVID-19 complications should come as no surprise, but rather a clear and expected outcome. This is a country built on racism and inequities, with systems that continue to perpetuate these inequities. But this pandemic serves as a unique crossroads. 

It is time to move past acknowledgement and into a space of collective commitment. Each of us can serve as a change agent, focused on disrupting the systems in place that foster inequities and injustice. And it will take all of us – government, business, healthcare, faith-based organizations, education, etc. – to prioritize racial health equity for African Americans. We’re committed. Will you join us?

*Johnson and Spitzer Smith are leading Susan G. Komen’s African American Health Equity Initiative