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The Boston Public Health Commission, Dorchester House examine racial gap in obesity, STDs with health forum

Kassmin Williams

The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), Dorchester House and other community organizations joined hands to host a community health forum at the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center last week.

About 35 people heard from panelists Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of BPHC, Dr. Gabrielle Bercy of Carney Hospital and Dr. Holly Goodale of Dorchester House on BPHC goals, family health and sexual health.

Attendees were also informed of the health issues plaguing minority communities in Boston, including unequal access to health care.

The health commission has learned socioeconomic factors like poverty, education, address and race have a greater impact on health than the amount of counseling, education and clinical interventions one receives, according to Ferrer.

BPHC is focused on ending racial inequity in health care because it is where the largest gap exists in Boston, Ferrer said.

“As a commission, we’re very committed to making sure that we call it out as a problem and that we work on it because every problem is a challenge and in every challenge there’s an opportunity to make things better,” Ferrer said. “So that’s how we view this issue, but if you don’t claim it as a problem you never work on coming up with some solutions.”

To close the gap, the commission is focusing on three areas: obesity, low birth weight and the chlamydia epidemic.

“We picked these three issues because they affect a lot of people and there are actually known strategies that could help us reduce the overall rates in these three areas but most importantly reduce the gap in rates,” Ferrer said.

The obesity rate tends to be higher in neighborhoods with people of color, according to Ferrer, who noted 37 percent of adults in Mattapan are obese, while 70 percent of adults are either obese or overweight.

Dorchester’s obesity rate is just under Mattapan’s, Ferrer said.

In Boston today, a black baby is two to four times more likely to die in the first year of life compared to a white baby, largely due to low birth weight.

Following Ferrer’s presentation, Bercy and Goodale talked about human papillomavirus, the most common sexually transmitted infection, which can most notably cause cervical cancer. They discussed diagnosis, treatment and vaccines preventing the infection.

Each year, 4.5 million people are diagnosed with HPV in the United States and 90 million are diagnosed with a STD each year, Bercy said.

After the discussion on HPV, audience members and panelists participated in a Q&A during which the panelists answered questions about the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, the difficulty in getting younger teens to complete the 3-dose series and access to condoms in high schools.

Getting teens to receive the first of three injections to prevent HPV is the easiest because it can be done when visiting for a physical for sports or school, but it is more difficult to get them to return two months later for a follow up shot, Goodale said.

The panelists agreed that it was easier to get teens to return on time for the second and third shots if you tie the appointment to something else, like birth control.

The school committee recently voted to allow all high schools in Boston to distribute condoms with sexual health education.

There is an opt-out policy for parents who don’t want their children to receive condoms, said Ferrer who noted that BPHC is focusing efforts on working with parents.

“I think ultimately we support the notion that parents are the first teacher and the best teacher, not just in terms of academic subjects but also in terms passing on values and expectations,” Ferrer said.

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