Arthur Ashe Institute and Hair Salons Spread the Word on Health Risks and Prevention

October 24, 2012 at 4:00 am

MetroFocus visited hair salons and barbershops in Brooklyn to learn about their partnership with the health programs of the Arthur Ashe Institute. Ruth Browne, CEO of the institute, explains the program’s origins in the 1990s and the goals of the institute’s health initiatives.

Black men and women in New York face a high risk of HIV, cancer, diabetes and heart disease, just like their counterparts in the rest of the country.  The statistics on these ailments and others reported by the Office of Minority Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, are alarming:  in 2010, African-Americans were 8.5 times more likely than whites to be diagnosed with HIV infection; were twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, and 40 percent more likely to have high blood pressure.

Of any racial or ethnic group, African-Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival for most cancers, which according to the American Cancer Society,  is thought to reflect social and economic disparities more than genetic factors.

Removing the obstacles to better health in the black community is the core mission of the Brooklyn-based Arthur Ashe Institute. One of its solutions: providing health care information through a place most people already trust their personal care to: barber shops and hair salons.  With 400 participating locations in Philadelphia and New York City, and a strong presence in Brooklyn,  the program trains professional hairdressers in advising their clients on health care — from what check-ups are important to tips on where low-cost professional medical services are offered.

As the Arthur Ashe Institute CEO Ruth Browne says, “If someone is six inches from your ear, why can’t they impart a life-saving health message?”

Hermie Fraser, owner of the salon Hermie's in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, was trained by the Arthur Ashe Institute to share health information with her clients. Photo MetroFocus.

For those not sure what the risks are, here are a few sobering statistics the health of blacks in Brooklyn, New York City and New York state.


According the Department of Health, more than 110,000 New York City residents have HIV. Black and Hispanic women account for over 90 percent of all women living with HIV in the city.

According to the 2012 New York State HIV/AIDS annual report, African Americans made up 63 percent of those living with HIV and AIDS in Brooklyn as of Dec. 2010.



Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in Brooklyn. The borough was the focus of a 2010 Report on Cancer by SUNY Downstate Medical Center, which drilled down statistics by types of cancers, race and ethnicity. It revealed that black men in Brooklyn have a “startling high” incidences and death rates for prostate cancer  — the death rate is double that for Hispanics and more than three times higher than for whites.  The report also says that although white women have the highest incident rate of cancer, black women are the most likely to die from it.

Click to enlarge image. Cancer deaths in Brooklyn, arranged by type, gender and ethnicity from 2002 to 2006. This chart is found in the 2010 Report on Cancer by SUNY Downstate Medical Center.

SUNY Downstate Medical Center offers cancer screenings and other preventative health services at any of its service providers, from Bay Ridge to Flatbush.  For instance, uninsured women 40 and older can receive free pap tests and pelvic exams, and clinical breast exams and mammograms. Men and women over 50 and without insurance can receive free take-home colon cancer tests.

Click to enlarge image. This graph from a 2010 SUNY Downstate Medical Center cancer report shows the leading causes of cancer deaths specifically in Flatbush-East Flatbush in 2006.



The NYC Health Department reported that from 2002 to 2007, the diabetes rate increased from 8 percent to 9 percent, resulting in 68,000 more adults with diabetes.

The impetus for Mayor Michael M. Bloomberg’s push to limit the sale of large, sugary drinks can be seen in a 2009 report on diabetes in the city.  The prevalence of reported cases was higher in the city than the rest of the country. No matter whether living in the city’s richest or poorest neighborhoods, blacks in New York suffer the highest rate of death due to diabetes. A study in 2005 cited the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant, as well as Manhattan’s Washington Heights and the South Bronx as having a high prevalence of diabetes (10-15 percent).


Hypertension and Heart Disease

The leading cause of death in the United States is heart disease. According to the 2012 New York State Minority Health Surveillance Report, black non-Hispanics had highest hospitalization rate for heart disease, 35 percent higher than for white non-Hispanics and Hispanics.

Philly Bubaris contributed research to this article.


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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