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Bridging Health’s Racial Divide

The world is poised to make transformative advances in disease prevention and control over the coming decades. But this revolution needs to include and benefit all people, and not become skewed disproportionately toward those with a particular skin color or socioeconomic status.

NEW YORK – After the late Arthur Ashe contracted HIV/AIDS, he commented that the heaviest burden he had to bear was not the disease but being born black in America. In addition to facing systemic racism, black people in the United States suffer disproportionately from disease and have shorter life expectancies and less healthy lives. During the COVID-19 pandemic, African-American and indigenous communities have suffered dramatically higher rates of hospitalization and death and vaccine hesitancy among some black people – due to their history of being medically exploited – remains a challenge.

Bridging this racial divide is a prerequisite for achieving a new and equitable era in global health. But today, there is far less clinical research involving people of African descent than white populations, particularly in genetics, immunology, and related disciplines. Unless we redress this racial imbalance, black people – as well as indigenous groups, Latinx, and other people of color – will continue to be left behind.

For example, people with European ancestry make up just 16% of the global population, but account for nearly 80% of participants in genetic studies. Moreover, less than 2% of genomes analyzed to date are from African people, even though the African diaspora contains the greatest genetic diversity. Thus, as scientists race to unlock the secrets of our DNA, the knowledge gained so far is heavily biased.

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