The health disparity I chose to talk about is Skin Cancer. There are many types of skin cancer, but the three most prevalent are basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, and melanoma. Skin cancer is also the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer. Basal and squamous cell cancer only has a .3% mortality rate, while melanoma has a 15-20% mortality rate. A much rarer form of melanoma known as malignant melanoma is responsible for 75% of all skin cancer deaths, despite being one of the least common. Skin cancer is much more prevalent among white individuals because their skin does not have as much melanin. There are actually three kinds of melanin, Eumelanin, Pheomelanin, and Neuromelanin, but Eumelanin is the one which differs most by race. (Pheomelanin is associated with red hair and the exact function of Neuromelanin is unknown) In general, individuals whose ancestors lived for long periods of time at the equator have higher levels of Melanin. It is interesting to note that while Melanin levels vary between different races, the number of melanocytes (the cells which produce melanin) hardly varies at all. Instead, the differences between races are due to the relative activity of the melanocytes. Melanin protects against the harmful effects of ionizing radiation, helping to protect against DNA mutations.
The relationship between race, genetics, and health is a complicated one. Oversimplification can often lead to grossly inaccurate conclusions; such oversimplifications have happened many times throughout recorded history. I would argue that while there are certain cases where race can have a direct effect on one’s health, the primary way in which race and health are related is actually a result of the varying social practices of the various races. This would mean that race and health share causation with social practices, but between themselves share only a correlation. (As the media is often prone to forgetting, correlation does not imply causation)
Melanoma of the Skin
Death Rates* by Race/Ethnicity and Sex, U.S., 1999–2008
Mortality source: U.S. Mortality Files, National Center for Health Statistics, CDC.
*Rates are per 100,000 persons and are age-adjusted to the 2000 U.S. standard population (19 age groups – Census P25-1130). Death rates cover 100% of the U.S. population.
†Hispanic origin is not mutually exclusive from race categories (white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native).