Heterogeneity of risk within racial groups, a challenge for public health programs

Heterogeneity of risk within racial groups, a challenge for public health programs

Preventive Medicine
Volume 55, Issue 5, November 2012
Pages 405–408
DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2012.08.022

Sean A. Valles, Assistant Professor
Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University

Targeting high-risk populations for public health interventions is a classic tool of public health promotion programs. This practice becomes thornier when racial groups are identified as the at-risk populations. I present the particular ethical and epistemic challenges that arise when there are low-risk subpopulations within racial groups that have been identified as high-risk for a particular health concern. I focus on two examples. The black immigrant population does not have the same hypertension risk as US-born African Americans. Similarly, Finnish descendants have a far lower rate of cystic fibrosis than other Caucasians. In both cases the exceptional nature of these subpopulations has been largely ignored by the designers of important public health efforts, including the recent US government dietary recommendations. I argue that amending the publicly-disseminated risk information to acknowledge these exceptions would be desirable for several reasons. First, recognizing low-risk subpopulations would allow more efficient use of limited resources. Communicating this valuable information to the subpopulations would also promote truth-telling. Finally, presenting a more nuanced empirically-supported representation of which groups are at known risk of diseases (not focusing on mere racial categories) would combat harmful biological race essentialist views held by the public.

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