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UTMB to host documentary series exploring effect of social conditions on health outcomes
Press Release

April, 2009

“Unnatural Causes,” the award-winning series of seven documentaries exploring how social conditions affect health, will be shown at 6:30 p.m. every Wednesday, beginning April 1, in the Levin Hall Auditorium at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.

Introduced by Dr. Howard Brody, director of the UTMB Institute for Medical Humanities, the opening 56-minute episode, “In Sickness and In Wealth,” looks at the connections between healthy bodies, healthy bank accounts and skin color. A UTMB faculty member will introduce each episode and will lead a discussion and question-answer session following each presentation.

The public is encouraged to attend; there is no admission charge. The series is made possible through the support of the Galveston County Medical Society.

Each supporting half-hour episode, set in a different ethnic or racial community, provides a deeper exploration of how social conditions affect population health and how people in some communities are extending their lives by improving them.

For more information, go to Click on the link “About the Series” for a complete listing of the seven episodes.

The series includes:

April 1: In Sickness and In Wealth. What are the connections between healthy bodies, healthy bank accounts and skin color? This episode takes place in Louisville, Ky., and questions why people get sick and why patterns of health and illness reflect class and racial inequities. The lives of a CEO, a lab supervisor, a janitor and an unemployed mother illustrate how class shapes opportunities for good health. Those on the top have the most access to power, resources and opportunity - and thus the best health. Those on the bottom are faced with more stressors - unpaid bills, jobs that don’t pay enough, unsafe living conditions, exposure to environmental hazards, lack of control over work and schedule, worries over children - and the fewest resources available to help them cope. Moderator is Howard Brody.

April 8: When the Bough Breaks. The percentage of infants who die before their first birthday is much higher in the United States than in other countries. And for African-Americans the rate is nearly twice as high as for white Americans. Even well-educated black women have birth outcomes worse than white women who haven’t finished high school. Why? We meet Kim Anderson, a successful Atlanta lawyer, executive and mother. When Kim was pregnant with her first child in 1990, she, like so many others, did her best to ensure a healthy baby: She ate appropriately, exercised, abstained from alcohol and smoking and received good prenatal care. Yet two and a half months before her due date, she went into labor unexpectedly. Her newborn weighed less than three pounds. Kim and her husband were devastated. Why did this happen? Moderator is Laura Hermer.

April 15: Becoming American. Recent Mexican immigrants, although poorer, tend to be healthier than the average American. They have lower rates of death from heart disease, cancer and other illnesses, despite being less educated, earning less and having the stress of adapting to a new country and a new language. In research circles, this is the Hispanic Paradox. However, as they are in the United States longer, their initial health advantage erodes. After five years or more in America, they are 1.5 times more likely to have high blood pressure - and be obese - than when they arrived. Within one generation, their health is as poor as other Americans of similar income status. In Kennett Square, Pa., about 40 miles south of Philadelphia, Mexican immigrants like Amador Bernal now make up a quarter of the town’s population. After almost 25 years in this country, Amador has never been to a doctor. And he’s not alone. Moderator is Rebeca Wong.

April 22: Bad Sugar. The Pima and Tohono O’odham Indians of southern Arizona have arguably the highest diabetes rates in the world - half of all adults are afflicted. But a century ago, diabetes was virtually unknown here. Researchers have poked and prodded the Pima for decades in search of a biological - or more recently, genetic - explanation for their high rates of the disease. Meanwhile, medical-only interventions have failed to stem the rising tide, not just among Native Americans, but globally. What happened to the health of the Pima? During the 20th century, the diversion of river water to upstream white settlements disrupted the Pima’s agricultural economy and customary ways. Local tribes were plunged into poverty and became dependent on the U.S. government. Healthy traditional foods like tepary beans, cholla buds and wild game were replaced by surplus commodities like white flour, lard, processed cheese and canned foods - a diabetic’s nightmare. A sense of futurelessness took hold, and so did diabetes. Moderator is Kirk Smith.

April 29: Place Matters. Why is your street address such a good predictor of your health? Hispanic and Southeast Asian immigrants like Gwai Boonkeut have been moving into long-neglected urban neighborhoods such as those in Richmond, Calif., a predominantly black city in the San Francisco Bay Area. Segregation and lack of access to jobs, nutritious foods and safe, affordable housing have been harmful to the health of long-time African-American residents, and now the newcomers’ health is suffering too. Moderator is Dayle Delancey.

May 6: Collateral Damage. Two billion people worldwide are infected with the TB bacillus, but only 9 million people a year actually get the disease. The story of the Marshall Islands can help us understand why. The lives and health of Marshall Islanders in the equatorial Pacific were disrupted in a unique fashion when the United States occupied their nation and used their outer islands for extensive nuclear testing after World War II. Between 1946 and 1958, 67 atomic devices were detonated - the estimated yield equivalent to 1.7 Hiroshima blasts every day for 12 years. After miscalculations on one of the largest explosions caused fallout to land on three inhabited islands, residents were treated, relocated and tracked to study the effects of radiation exposure on humans. Moderator is Jason Glenn.

May 13: Not Just a Paycheck. In the winter of 2006, Electrolux Corporation closed the largest refrigerator factory in the United States and moved it to Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, for cheaper labor. The move turned the lives of nearly 3,000 workers in Greenville, Mich., upside down with enormous health implications. As personal finances spiral downward, health follows. In the year after the plant closure, the local hospital’s caseload tripled because of depression, alcoholism and domestic abuse. Moderator is Alexandra “Lexi” Nolen.




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