CDC Declares Racism a Public Health Threat

Dr. Walensky

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, Former CDC Director and Administrator of ASDR

In April, ten weeks after becoming CDC director, I declared racism a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans and, as a result, affects the health of our entire nation. It was important to me to bring my clinical and scientific commitment, passion, and advocacy for health equity to my role as director of the agency charged with protecting the health of all Americans.

Of course, CDC has long recognized that racism is the root cause of many health disparities. This declaration announced that we are rededicating ourselves to the work of addressing the challenges driven by structural factors … racism, discrimination, and historical disenfranchisement … that overwhelmingly impact so many of the communities in which we live.

As part of that commitment, we developed the agency’s CORE Health Equity Strategy resolving to create comprehensive health equity science, optimize interventions, reinforce existing partnerships and create new ones, and enhance our workforce engagement.

And we embarked on an agency-wide strategic process to make sure health equity, and the elimination of health inequities, are central to the work we do and that every center, every division, and every program are advancing these efforts. It is this work that will holistically transform the way we approach public health – within the agency, across the nation, and around the world.

On July 31, each part of the agency submitted their health equity science and intervention goals that describe how we will study the drivers and impacts of social determinants on health outcomes, expand the body of evidence of what interventions will reduce the inequities that affect health, and invite partners from multiple sectors who can collaborate to implement solutions.

The submissions were impressive and are a testimony to our ability to weave health equity into every program at CDC and to implement transformative actions that will advance health equity for all in our country and beyond.

For example, our Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support has committed that by October 2022, they will increase the proportion of Public Health Associate Program assignments that focus on underserved areas and/or work with populations who are underserved. This includes racial and ethnic minority populations.

By September 2023, our Center for Global Health’s Division of Global HIV and Tuberculosis (TB) will advance the reduction of stigma and discrimination through the promotion of civil and human rights to improve the health outcomes of persons at risk of, or living with, HIV and/or TB infection in countries where this Division works.

The National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities Division of Birth Defects and Infant Disorders will address health disparities among Hispanic/Latina women of reproductive age in the US by assessing the awareness of folic acid fortification of corn masa flour, and other interventions, for the prevention of neural tube defects.

By December 2025, the Office of Women’s Health will collaborate with internal and external partners to develop and implement strategies and policies that address gendered racism and gender discrimination in the workplace in redoubled efforts to promote health equity.

These are just four of the more than 150 commitments made across CDC that implement what we know works, focus on what is observable and evaluable, and push us beyond our status quo to ensure we drive innovative action and continue to lead in advancing health equity.

I would like to acknowledge the huge efforts of all who have been involved with this effort throughout our agency. Not only am I committed to this work, but I am energized by the overwhelming enthusiasm, cross-agency collaboration and scientific rigor our workforce has demonstrated. I encourage you to join us in this critical part of our future for a healthier world. Visit the newly launched CORE strategy website to learn more about our efforts.

DISCLAIMER: The “Expert Perspectives” forum invites contributors from throughout the public health community to share their thoughts and opinions on a range of issues related to health equity. The views, conclusions and opinions expressed in “Expert Perspectives,” are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Public Health Service, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the authors’ affiliated institutions.