Maria Aspan: Fortune Magazine June 30, 2020
Racism kills Black Americans, and has long before COVID-19. But its toxic combination with sexism has particularly vast and disastrous consequences for the health of Black women.
While Black people in the U.S. are dying from the COVID-19 pandemic at a disproportionately high rate, this national health crisis underlines an even grimmer status quo: Black Americans are also much more likely to die from far more common and longstanding health problems every day. Black women are at particularly high risk of heart disease and strokes, and are at least three times as likely to die as a result of childbirth as white women, contributing to the overall alarmingly high maternal mortality rate in the United States.
Then there are the shocking statistics around breast cancer, which affects one in every eight women and is the most common non-skin cancer affecting women. Black women are less likely to develop it—but 40% more likely to die from it than white women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The reasons behind this awful disparity are wide-ranging, and include systemic problems both within healthcare and far beyond it. Now the disproportionately high toll of COVID-19 on the Black population in the U.S. and the simultaneous national reckoning over racism are drawing new attention to the racial inequities hurting Black women—and amplifying the voices of doctors, scientists, and public health experts who have long sounded the alarm.
Women of all races could be legally omitted from government-funded clinical trials before 1993, and are still often under-represented in most research studies of conditions that affect them. Pregnancy and menstrual cycles are thought to “complicate” the results of trials that are mostly conducted on white men, who are seen as the “norm.”
This can obviously backfire. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sharply cut its recommended dosages of Ambien for women, after years of complaints about grogginess and falling asleep while driving, when followup tests showed that women metabolized the active ingredient in sleeping aids much more slowly than men.
When it comes to clinical trials funded by pharmaceutical companies, “the FDA encourages but does not require diversity in clinical trials,” says Diana Zuckerman, a scientist and president of the National Center for Health Research. “Worse, the agency frequently approves drugs and devices for all adults, even if they were primarily studied on white adults.”
One treatment that the FDA approved in April, for the “triple-negative” type of breast cancer that disproportionately affects Black women, was approved after being tested on 108 patients. Eight of them, or 7%, were Black. Another breast-cancer treatment was approved last year after being tested on 234 patients; seven of them, or 3%, were Black.
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