ATLANTA — Americans made advances in the 1990s against a broad range of diseases and other health threats, but glaring racial and ethnic disparities remain, the government reported.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, released Thursday, looked at 17 key "health indicators" — statistics on everything from infant mortality to suicide to stroke, broken down into racial and ethnic groups.
For all but one of the indicators, the statistics improved for the overall U.S. population. The death rate dropped 9 percent for stroke, 15 percent car crashes and more than 28 percent for homicides.
Only the percentage of babies born with low birth weight rose during the decade, from 7 percent in 1990 to 7.6 percent in 1998.
Of more concern to health officials are lingering gaps, some of them glaring, for racial and ethnic minorities. Even when those groups saw improvements in the 1990s, whites in some cases managed to improve faster.
Take breast cancer. From 1990 to 1998, the death rate fell 4 percent among black women and 13 percent among Hispanic women. For white women, the death rate dropped 18 percent.
Among the other alarming gaps were the rate of tuberculosis cases, eight times higher for blacks and six times higher for Hispanics, and homicide, 10 times higher for blacks and four times higher for Hispanics.
"In many ways, Americans of all ages and in every racial and ethnic group have better health today," Surgeon General David Satcher said. "But our work isn't done until all infants have the same chance to thrive, all mothers have equal access to prenatal care, and all Americans are equally protected from cancer, heart disease and stroke."
Researchers said the reasons for the gaps are different for each disease, even for different parts of the country.
"Certainly some are due to social and economic factors, and others behavioral factors," said Ken Keppel, a CDC statistician.
For federal health officials, who have set the lofty goal of eliminating these gaps by 2010, the study shows a lot of work ahead.
"We have to talk about equal access to care for all populations — access to preventive services, to effective screening and diagnostic tools and effective treatment as well," said CDC cancer expert Dr. Phyllis Wingo.
Researchers pointed to national syphilis figures as a particular success story. Cases per 100,000 people dropped from more than 20 in 1990 to less than 3 in the 1998.
Still, rates for the sexually transmitted disease among blacks are still nearly eight times higher than they are among whites.
Separately, the CDC reported that death rates from lung, breast, colorectal and prostate cancer fell. Researchers credited less smoking and early detection, though they urged more study to figure out why prostate cancer deaths dropped.
However, death rates for blacks were significantly higher than they were for whites.