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Getting Healthy Can Start with a Hair Cut

By Dr. Bill J. Releford, Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program

Mr. Mobley, a 60 year old African American male, presents with chronic foot complications related to his long standing diabetes. The patient has a medical history remarkable for hypertension - five heart attacks and one stroke. The man's social history involves 50 years of smoking. Although aware of the dangers of smoking, he only recently quit due to a tracheotomy and the need to breath.

I wish I were making this up, but this man is a real patient, and his case is far from unique. African American men suffer disproportionately from preventable diseases and have the lowest life expectancy of any other ethnic group. Unemployment, poor education and racism along with ongoing health care disparities have compounded the crisis, and something must be done.

Knowing that good health is a prerequisite to realizing equal opportunity, The Black Barbershop Outreach Program was launched to address cardiovascular disease in at-risk African American men across the country. The program brings medical volunteers into the existing community based infrastructure of Black-owned barbershops with the goals of cardiovascular testing (diabetes and hypertension), information dissemination, and referral to local health care facilities if follow-up care is needed.

The Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program promotes healthy lifestyles and conducts early detection and intervention activities. Locating the program in Black barbershops has proven successful, as they represent a cultural institution that regularly attract large numbers of Black men and provide an environment of trust with an avenue to disseminate health education information.

Since its inception in December 2007, the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program has screened more than 3,000 African American men for diabetes and hypertension in cities throughout the country, including Chicago and Atlanta, as well as a state wide effort in California that included more than 150 Black owned barber shops.

By 2012, the program's goal is to screen 500,000 African American men across the nation and provide culturally appropriate educational materials about obesity, prostate cancer, proper eating habits and give information about signs and symptoms of other diseases affecting their communities.

There is no question that this program is essential to save the lives of African American men. As reported recently, it is likely that 100,000 African Americans will suffer a stroke this year. Strokes are the third leading cause of death among African Americans. While some of this risk is derived from genetic disposition, other risk elements are preventable.

The marketing of tobacco products to the African American community, compounded with the lack of knowledge and resources to quit smoking has placed the African American community in a cycle of addiction.

We talk about weapons of mass destruction. We hear that so often in the media. There is nothing more destructive than tobacco use in the African American community. We see patients so addicted to nicotine that they would rather have a leg amputated than to stop smoking. Literally, you give them an option: would you rather have your leg salvaged or stop smoking? Cut it off.

These are the types of things the media doesn't really get a chance to see. This is the face of tobacco and nicotine addiction that no one ever talks about. You look at the fact that we live in a country that talks about access to equal opportunity, well that equal opportunity cannot be realized if people aren't healthy. Health is the prerequisite to well being, economic development, and so forth.

Personally, I have watched my own family members suffer from nicotine addiction. Of my 13 aunts and uncles, more than half have suffered amputations, heart attacks as well as strokes because they could not kick the nicotine habit. Even my own father has struggled for decades to stop smoking but can't seem to break the addiction cycle. I am afraid.

It is time to step up and proactively get on board by supporting smokers, to the fullest extent possible, in quitting. Offering a full variety of cessation services, including counseling, medications, and relapse prevention services can only improve smokers' health, their families' health and will enhance the quality of their lives.

Without the resources to help African American men quit smoking, they will continue to suffer at a disproportionate rate.

Patients must no longer face the decision of losing a limb or their capacity to breathe in order to nurse their addiction to cigarettes. Smoking cessation programs are necessary to stop the fatal conditions of diabetes and heart disease before they begin, and in effect, prevent the deaths of thousands of African American men.

Dr. Bill J. Releford founded The Releford Institute which is dedicated exclusively to the reduction of diabetes-related amputations in high-risk populations. Additionally, through his non-profit organization, the Diabetic Amputation Prevention Foundation, Dr. Releford is founder of The Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program.





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