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What's extraordinary about the gap between the health of whites and blacks is that it is widening.

The National Center for Health Statistics last week published a report showing life expectancy for blacks in the United States had dropped significantly during the latter part of the decade. The 1988 data shows blacks can expect to live to 69.2 years while whites 75.6 years.

It was one of many recent studies confirming what is already known -- that blacks suffer from illness more than whites do, find it more difficult to receive medical care and die at a younger age.

"We know the problems. We know the trends, too," said Dr. William A. Robinson, federal Office of Minority Health director. "They are just getting worse. It's a travesty that people are losing the battle for health and life." Robinson is the featured speaker at a conference on "The Health Status of African-Americans in Buffalo" from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Hilleboe Auditorium, Elm and Carlton streets.

The conference, presented by the Youth Planning Council of the Near Eastside, also will include sessions on the health of children, pregnant women, adolescents and adults, as well as talks by Dr. Olivia Smith-Blackwell, state Health Department regional director, and Lorna Scott McBarnette, deputy commissioner. Robinson attributes the health problems of blacks to a host of interrelated elements: AIDS, diet, culture, poverty, racism, drugs, violence, lifestyle, genetics, few minority physicians and environment -- such as the prevalence of lead-based paints in homes.

Is national health insurance a solution?

"Yes, in terms of moving toward a circumstance where a minimum level of services are given to a broader range of people. To the degree that we begin -- and this is an obligation of a society with the resources we have -- to look more internally, we will find it's time for a broader commitment to help people on the bottom rung of the ladder," he said.

"The issue is much broader than the increased hazards of homicides and overdoses among blacks," Robinson said Thursday in a telephone interview. "There has been a very quiet increase in the number of deaths of blacks that would not occur if they had the same health status as whites."

In 1985, Robinson documented 50,000 excess deaths among blacks caused by six major problems, including infant mortality, high blood pressure and hypertension. Since then, the number of black excess deaths rose to 75,000.

Furthermore, Robinson, and many other experts, argue that it is more responsible and cost-effective to provide good preventive care.

"It doesn't make sense to deny prenatal care because of lack of funds. If we get more women into prenatal care, we will save millions of dollars. If we don't do preventive care, we'll be overwhelmed," he said.

In the short-term, Robinson suggests local communities help themselves with grass roots groups along the lines of the Youth Planning Council. As for the future, he's hopeful conditions will improve.

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