South Asian Communities Explore Health Issues

Los Angeles, CA: Over 75 community leaders, researchers, students and health professionals convened at the University of Southern California on March 26, 2005 for the first Health of South Asians Conference. Entitled “Bridging Communities for Better Health,” the conference focused on identifying health trends, disparities, and outreach efforts in the diverse South Asian communities.


Glimpses of the conference

“South Asians are so often either underrepresented or misrepresented when it comes to health data that we felt it was important to start a dialogue amongst the community itself to better educate ourselves and to promote the research that is going on about our communities,” said Sumun Pendakur, Assistant Director for the USC Asian Pacific American Student Services (APASS) and one of the key organizers of the conference. “The diversity of South Asians poses significant issues because of the differences in economic and immigrant status, diet, and lifestyles. Yet, there are some issues that seem to be relevant to all South Asians.”
The conference was sponsored by a number of community and student organizations and USC departments. Included among these were the South Asian Network, the South Asian Public Health Association, the South Asian Health Association, and the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. Also sponsoring the event were USC Civic and Community Relations, USC Keck School of Medicine, Office of Diversity, USC Institute for Preventive Research (IPR), The India Restaurant, Bhindi Jewelers, and Haldiram’s. The conference was intended to spark conversations in various sectors of the community about health and to drive additional research and educational programs.
Keynoting the conference was a presentation by Dr. Roshan Bastani, Associate Dean for Research at UCLA’s School of Public Health. Dr. Bastani spoke about the fact that South Asians are largely “missing in action” when it comes to research and health prevention work. She emphasized the need for communities to organize and work with experts and researchers as imperative to address the disparities in health care.
Also present were Neelam Gupta, Assistant Director of LA Health Action, and Dan Ichinose, Project Director for the Demographic Research Unit of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, who spooke on the diversity and demographics of the South Asian community in Los Angeles.
Arnab Mukherjea, the Co-Chair of the South Asian Public Health Association, a national advocacy group, stated that the top health issues affecting South Asians are heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Mukherjea addressed the extremely high use of smokeless tobacco products such as zarda, gutka, and pan masala among South Asians in Los Angeles. According to Dr. Beth Glenn, Researcher at the UCLA Division of Cancer Prevention and Control Research, Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Punam Parikh, formerly with South Asian Network, 49% of males and 21% of women in a sample used smokeless tobacco products, which are a risk factor for mouth cancer and heart disease, among other diseases. However, according to Dr. William McCarthy, Associate Professor of Public Health at UCLA and the Principal Investigator for the California Asian Indian Tobacco Survey, smoking rates among Asian Indians in California were some of the lowest in the country, making the community a public health model for the country when it comes to tobacco use.
Another speaker, Dr. Dennis Deapen, Director of the LA County Cancer Surveillance Unit at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, reported that the top female cancer continues to be breast cancer and for men, prostate cancer. He stressed that while the rates were lower than many other communities, as communities acculturate and “become more American,” their incidence rates increase, so prevention efforts and screening are key for any prevention strategy.
The afternoon session was on “Community Best Practices” and was moderated by Zul Surani from NCI’s Cancer Information Service at USC Norris. Surani, a long time community health activist and board member of SAN and Saath, chose to highlight programs throughout the country that were effective in educating, screening, and improving awareness and that are available to partner with other community organizations who reach people at risk. Geetha Veliah, from Community Health Action Initiative (CHAI), is creating a national model for prevention work in South Asian communities and has already reached thousands with important health messages on cancer, heart disease and diabetes in a variety of South Asian languages. Dr. Nitin Shah, from the Jain Center of Southern California, shared his strategies in creating health fairs to highlight breast and cervical cancer. Dipa Shah, from the LA Nutrition Network, shared the success of Project Dil in pushing an agenda of nutrition and health living. Sheela Mehta, a social worker from South Asian Helpline and Referral Agency (SAHARA), talked on preventing domestic violence in South Asian families, effective support groups, and their newly acquired shelter providing comprehensive programs to assist victims of domestic violence, a major issue in South Asian communities according to a variety of sources.
To close the day, Hamid Khan, Executive Director of South Asian Network, called upon the communities to put their differences aside and work together to overcome major health problems faced by our communities by advocating and participating in civic life.
“It is our hope that academic-community partnerships, including internships and joint-research projects, will be by-products of the conference. The planners of the conference will try to create support for new initiatives in these areas,” said Zul Surani, Partnership Program Coordinator at USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center
Organizations and persons interested in the conference or who would like to become more involved in the ongoing efforts in this area are encouraged to contact Zul Surani at zsurani@usc.edu or at 626-457-4267.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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