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'Health Of Boston' Mixes Good News And Bad: Teen Births Down, Racial Gaps Loom

Fewer Boston teens are having babies, fewer Boston public high school students are smoking, and fewer city children have elevated blood lead levels, according to the 2011 Health of Boston report released today by Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

But amid the good news about the health of Boston residents in the 398-page report prepared by the Boston Public Health Commission were troubling signs that racial disparities persist. In 2009, the asthma hospitalization rate for black children ages 3 to 5 was four times the rate for white children; the tuberculosis rate for Asians was three times the rate for Boston residents overall; and the heart disease hospitalization rate for Latino males was more than twice the rate for white males. In 2010, a higher percentage of black and Latino adult residents were obese compared to white and Asian adult residents, while a higher percentage of adult smokers were white compared to other racial and ethnic groups.

``The Health of Boston report is always a sobering reminder that our work is far from finished, though every year we continue to see areas of progress,’’ Mayor Menino said. ``This report will help us set our public health priorities so that we align resources where they are most needed.’’

Among the bright spots for Boston residents:

· Births among adolescents ages 15 to 17 decreased by 19 percent from 2008 to 2009. During that period, birth rates declined for black, Latino, and white teens, with the white adolescent birth rate declining the most, by 61 percent.
· Of 22,229 children under age six screened in 2010 for elevated blood lead levels, less than one percent had elevated levels. The percentage of elevated blood levels among tested children has decreased substantially from 13.5 percent in 1995.
· From 1999 to 2009, reported new HIV infection cases among Boston residents decreased 57 percent. In 1999, there were 359 reported new HIV cases; in 2009, that number had dropped to 155 new cases.
· Reported cases of pertussis or ``whooping cough’’ decreased 53 percent from 9.0 new cases per 100,000 residents in 2008 to 4.2 new cases per 100,000 residents in 2009. The decrease was 80 percent from 2007 to 2009. The decrease was likely due to the expanded use of a vaccine (Tdap) to prevent pertussis.
· In 2009, more than 50 percent of Boston’s employed residents relied on public transportation, biked, motorcycled, or walked to work.

For the first time, the Health of Boston contained no new mortality data because the data were unavailable from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in time for publication.

The report, however, did shed light on the toll of the economic downturn on Boston families. In 2009, 31 percent of Boston’s homeless were children. There has been a steady increase in the percentage of homeless children since 2004, when they were 20 percent of the homeless population. Also, in 2009, 70 percent of all households receiving food stamps in the past year had at least one employed worker, a sign of the growing struggle for the working poor.

Also:

In 2010, 23 percent of Boston adults reported consuming five or more alcoholic drinks on one occasion in the past month; 16 percent reported that they currently smoke; 26 percent said they consume the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day; 13 percent said they drink one or more sodas per day; and 57 percent said they get regular physical activity, which is defined as vigorous activity for 20 minutes per day on three or more days a week or moderate activity for 30 minutes per day on five or more days a week. From 2001 to 2010, the percentage of Boston adults who said they engage in regular physical activity has not changed.

``Boston is one of the healthiest city in America, but, obviously, there is still work to do,’’ said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission. ``That’s why it’s important that we continue to sound the alarm about the bad health consequences of sugary beverages and tobacco, while continuing to provide support for community gardening, Farmer’s Markets, and create policies and programs that allow residents to incorporate physical activity into their daily routine.’’

This program aired on November 30, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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