It was a startling number: 21 percent of Puerto Ricans living in Humboldt Park and West Town had been diagnosed with diabetes – more than double the national rate and higher than rates among Puerto Ricans elsewhere.
That’s what researchers from the Sinai Urban Health Institute found in a study published four years ago on the health of Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Now, a group of Humboldt Park residents have teamed up with Rush University Medical Center and Norwegian American Hospital to try to do something about that. They’re launching a research project called Block by Block to educate people in the neighborhood about diabetes, push for more early diagnosis and provide diabetics with resources to help manage their condition.
The project is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Unlike other public health initiatives, the community groups involved in Block by Block are equal partners with the medical professionals in the program, says Rush’s Dr. Steven K. Rothschild, who is leading Block by Block along with Jose Lopez, director of the Humboldt Park Puerto Rican Cultural Center.
“Health care professionals can go in to a community and talk to people about nutrition and exercise, but we believe that, for an intervention to truly succeed, the change has to come from within,” Rothschild says. “Our goal is to partner with the community – not just residents, but businesses, schools, churches, restaurants – to reduce the impact of diabetes.”
It’s not clear why Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park have such high rates of diabetes, though obesity, unhealthy diets and perhaps genetics are thought to be contributing factors.
As part of the four-year project, Humboldt Park residents, trained in diabetes prevention and management, will help conduct a survey of 4,100 households in a 72-block area to identify people who have diabetes or are at high risk for it. That should take about nine months.
Then, the focus will be on teaching people about diabetes through activities, such as group trips to the grocery store, exercise programs and classes at the Greater Humboldt Park Community Diabetes Empowerment Center, which recently opened.
Four “block captains” who live in the neighborhood and either have diabetes or a family member with diabetes will help diabetics come up with a plan to manage the condition.
One of those captains is Johnny Tirado, a 36-year-old diabetic whose parents, brother and sister also have Type 2 diabetes. Since taking a diabetes education course at Norwegian American in January, Tirado, who is Puerto Rican, said he has lost 20 pounds and lowered his blood glucose levels.
He wants to get the message out to other Hispanics that diabetes isn’t inevitable.
“A lot of diabetics I know who are Hispanic . . . have accepted it as, ‘It’s just part of life,’ but that’s not the way it has to be,” Tirado says.
Rothschild says he hopes to “change the ideology” about diabetes in Humboldt Park through repeated health messages in schools, homes and churches.
“What we’re trying to do is reach a critical mass so that one person trying to change their diet gets reinforcement from neighbors, kids who learned about this in school and other family members,” he says.
Information from: Chicago Sun-Times