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Atlanta Project Targets Black Health

ED GORDON, host:

For years, black leaders have decried the health troubles facing their communities. African-Americans have substantially higher rates of many illnesses and health officials complain little is being done to improve things. Now a group of black men in Atlanta has launched a project in hopes of reversing the trend. Joshua Levs reports.

JOSHUA LEVS reporting:

Terrell Slayton is an assistant secretary of State in the Georgia government. He's 59 years old and gets regular checkups from his doctor. A few years ago, he attended a retreat organized by the 100 Black Men of Atlanta. Several doctors conducted screenings for members of the group.

Mr. TERRELL SLAYTON (Assistant Secretary of State, Georgia): I had high cholesterol, I had hypertension, I had diabetes, high glucose levels.

LEVS: He knew about some of the ailments.

Mr. SLAYTON: I didn't know I had high cholesterol.

LEVS: Neither do thousands of other African-Americans. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and prevention show black men have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes and other problems more frequently than other groups and they often don't get tested. Slayton decided to give up a lot of the fried greasy foods in his diet.

Mr. SLAYTON: Diet and exercise can actually get you off of medication, and you've just got to recommit and to share awareness with others.

LEVS: That's the simple message behind a program the 100 Black Men of Atlanta launched this year. A hundred and fifty members, all successful professionals, have undergone a slew of screenings, received counseling about nutrition and exercise, and they're getting quarterly checkups. They're also taking the information to their own physicians for recommendations. The project is spearheaded by former surgeon general David Satcher, now president of Morehouse School of Medicine.

Mr. DAVID SATCHER (President, Morehouse School of Medicine): We felt that we needed some leaders in this movement. We needed people who first would work on their own health but also who would then use their positions in the community to begin to educate other people and to develop programs like this.

LEVS: The thinking is that if respected figures in the community improve their health and speak publicly about it, others will follow. Numerous studies have pointed to a long list of reasons for poorer health in the black community including economic conditions, access to health care, education and lifestyle. Leaders of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta say their project is about motivating people to take responsibility for what they can control. Executive director John Grant says the group wants to see whether it can start a groundswell.

Mr. JOHN GRANT (Executive Director, 100 Black Men of Atlanta): We live in a society where rhetoric is the norm of the day, where we talk about what we should do but action is missing. And so this study is a demonstration of that action.

LEVS: It's not yet clear how successful the project is. It began early this year and organizers say some people have not showed up for their quarterly checkups. But early next year, the group plans to compile and send out information about participants and how much they improved. President-elect Darrell Fitzgerald, an architect, also plans to build more health initiatives into programs for children.

Mr. DARRELL FITZGERALD (President-elect, 100 Black Men of Atlanta): So we're trying to instill in them, you know, how you live right so that they will prosper and be good folks, educated and healthy.

LEVS: Organizers say they'll educate members about public policy that could improve health conditions in the black community--for example, by increasing access to health insurance and restoring physical exercise programs in schools. But the primary focus will remain on having prominent African-American men who have participated in the program speak about their experience at public forums and in the media. That's what assistant Secretary of State Terrell Slayton has been doing.

Mr. SLAYTON: I'm committed to telling everybody that I know that I know men in 100 Black Men who probably wouldn't be with us today had it not been for this initiative, including me. I'm one of those.

LEVS: The group hopes to launch its project nationwide through the 100 Black Men of America next year. For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.

GORDON: There's more about health issues facing black Americans including the CDC's report on minority health on our Web site at npr.org.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joshua Levs