TUESDAY, July 2, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Although Latino youth are the largest racial and ethnic minority group of children in the United States, they face huge obstacles when it comes to getting adequate health care.
That's the conclusion of a task force of experts, who are calling for more research involving Latino children. Focusing on their specific problems could help in developing effective approaches to improving the health of underserved and high-risk populations around the country, the authors say in an article appearing in tomorrow's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"It's definitely a call to action. We think these are urgent priorities," says Dr. Glenn Flores, lead author of the study and an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at Boston University School of Medicine. "The bottom line for us is that we have a demographic surge going on, but the disparities in health and health care are persisting or getting worse. We're at a crisis point right now."
Latinos are currently the largest minority group of children (11.6 million) in the United States, representing 16 percent of the population younger than 18. In California, Latinos outnumber white children and in 2010, Latino children will exceed white children by 2 million.
The Latino population could serve as a sort of test model for other groups. "If we can think of interventions for this population, we can solve a lot of problems for all the nation's children," Flores says.
The report's conclusions are all too familiar to other experts in the field.
"Unfortunately, the findings are not surprising to many of us, particularly those of us who work with this population," says Dr. Adam Aponte, chairman of pediatrics and ambulatory care at North General Hospital in Harlem. "We've known that Latinos and other minorities have had an undue burden, and it's clear that Latinos have not been included in research."
Flores led a group of 13 experts from The Latino Consortium of the American Academy of Pediatrics Center for Child Health Research (CCHR), who were asked to identify and annotate critical research and policy issues impacting Latino children. In this case, Latino refers to all U.S. individuals whose origins can be traced to Spanish-speaking regions of Latin America, including the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America.
Overall, the panelists report a bleak picture, with Latino youth more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, more likely to be hospitalized or die from injuries, 13 times more likely than whites to be infected with tuberculosis, and more likely to have dental problems.
Latino children are also most likely of any other ethnic group in this country to be uninsured (the rate stands at 27 percent), are subject to at least 22 different barriers to health care, and often receive substandard care.
Of particular significance for future health problems, the panelists report that Latino boys are the most overweight and Latina girls the second most overweight racial/ethnic groups of U.S. children.
"We're seeing more obese children at younger ages, kids 7 or 8 who are already morbidly obese," Aponte concurs. "We know that these children, as a result of this, have a higher risk of developing diabetes."
Studies show that Puerto Rican children have the highest prevalence of active asthma (11 percent) of any U.S. ethnic/racial group of children. Of the half million Latino children who have asthma, two-thirds are Puerto Rican.
Asthma is the leading admitting diagnosis for children at North General Hospital, accounting for 40 percent of pediatric admissions, Aponte says. The reasons for this are unclear.
Framing all of this are various cultural and linguistic considerations. Despite the large numbers of Latino children, only 3 percent of medical school faculty, 5 percent of pediatricians, 2.8 percent of dentists and 2 percent of nurses are Latino, the study reports.
Not only are more Latino participants needed in medical studies, more minority physicians need to be involved, say the study authors.
Someone who does not know the culture may not be able to deliver the best health care and might even compromise care.
"Understanding the culture is inherently important in delivering health care," says Aponte, who is Puerto Rican and grew up in Harlem. "When you prescribe something and you're culturally ignorant, the patients may not follow through." For example, a Latino family is unlikely to follow instructions to cut out rice and beans from their diet. They may, however, reduce portion sizes.
"The article highlights some of the problems, but clearly we need to get beyond the problems and start talking about solutions," Aponte says. "What are we doing as a society, as a country with regard to these issues?"
What To Do
For more information on Latino health, visit the National Alliance for Hispanic Health. You can also try the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for health information relating to infants and children.