Examining health disparities in West Michigan

Adam London discusses public well-being in Kent County

By Jenna Fracassi | 2/22/17 9:44pm

The Health Professionals Graduate Student Alliance (HPGSA) at Grand Valley State University hosted guest speaker Adam London, the health officer for Kent County, Tuesday, Feb. 21, to discuss public health issues in West Michigan. The event took place in the DeVos Center University Club Room. 

In discussing ongoing health disparities in West Michigan, London presented an illustration from the Grand Haven Tribune dating back to 1892. The image displayed a dragon with the word “typhoid” written across it, symbolic of the Grand River. All of the people who were in contact with the dragon were depicted as ill or dying. The sword fighting the dragon was labeled “prevention.”

Mackenzie Bush

GVL/Mackenzie Bush -Adam London, Health Officer for Kent County, speaks in the University Club Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017.

“We think of Grand Rapids today as beer city,” London said. “It’s been called furniture city in the past, but there was a time back 120 years ago that Grand Rapids could have been called typhoid city. We had one of the highest rates of typhoid of anywhere in the U.S. right here in Grand Rapids. The biggest reason for that was disparity.”

Depending on which side of the river an individual lived on, they may have had a greater chance of getting typhoid. Upper-class individuals who lived on the east side were much less likely to get typhoid than the dense population of immigrants on the west side. Sewer and water systems were not complete on the west side, so many people were forced to use outhouses and had to dig wells for their water supply.

“You can imagine with that density of population in a smaller area like this, on occasion there would be risk of commingling the water in your well from the water in the outhouse,” London said.

He explained that in many cases, the disparity in health in the world is stratified by social factors. These are features that are built into our community, including race, education and access to healthcare.

In 1900 the leading cause of death was infectious diseases, and the average lifespan was 48 years. Now, our average life expectancy in the U.S. is about 78 years, and the top two causes of death are heart disease and cancer.

“You can see the causes of death have changed pretty dramatically, going from many very acute, preventable causes of death to being chronic illnesses and other things that are lifestyle related,” London said.

When discussing abortion and health disparity, London asked if there were really a right to choose. He explained that there were outside forces causing artificial pressures on certain groups of people. African-Americans make up 17 percent of the female population, but they also constitute 50 percent of the women who receive abortions, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. This could be attributed to a lack of access to health care or resources.

One local indicator of disparity in health is infant mortality rates, or the number of newborns that die within their first year of life. Kent County looked into infant mortality rates according to race and found that African-Americans had the highest rate, followed by Hispanics and then Caucasians.

London described the efforts made by Kent County to fight this disparity.

“There was a commitment made to home health nursing, to education on safe-sleep practices, working with the hospitals and working with local police departments to really educate and provide car seats,” London said.

Various health programs were also implemented that focused on creating a safe home environment for newborns, as well as providing parents and expectant parents with the information they needed and access to resources. Following these efforts, the African-American infant mortality rate has dropped.

Sue Nieboer, faculty adviser for HPGSA, believed the most valuable part of the presentation was looking at all the disparities as well as the discussion about why they exist.

“People had to stop and think about it,” Nieboer said. “He didn’t just give us a bunch of facts. He made us stop and think.”

London finished his presentation with a sentiment about working in public health.

“In public health, you are a hero, but you’re not the kind of hero that pulls people out of burning buildings,” London said. “You are the kind of hero that prevents the building from burning.”

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