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Kidney Disease Risk Overlooked; Few Blacks See Signs of Illness

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Almost half of a group of African-Americans surveyed by the National Institutes of Health are at serious risk of developing kidney disease, but only one-sixth recognize their risks --- a gap in knowledge that could allow the fatal disease to develop undetected, researchers said.

The findings --- drawn from more than 2,000 interviews with blacks over the age of 30 conducted in Atlanta, Baltimore, Cleveland and Jackson, Miss. --- demonstrate the need for more education about kidney disease. The disease strikes blacks three times as often as whites, the organizers said.

"The goal is to increase awareness in the community about patients who are at risk for kidney disease, so they can get tested," said Dr. Janice Lea, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine.

More than 20 million Americans are living with kidney disease, but the illness strikes minorities disproportionately hard. In 2001, the rate of kidney failure among blacks was 36 per 100,000 black members of the population; the rate among whites was 11 per 100,000 whites.

Kidney disease develops slowly, over years: Black men between the ages of 25 and 44 are 20 times more likely to develop kidney failure than white men the same age.

Kidney disease --- which leads to kidney failure and the need for dialysis or an organ transplant --- is primarily caused by diabetes and high blood pressure, to which blacks are more vulnerable than whites. It is an expensive disease to care for: The total cost to the economy in 2001 for kidney disease was $22.8 billion, according to NIH.

Lea leads the Atlanta arm of the National Kidney Disease Education Program, a yearlong venture of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, a division of NIH.

The education project, which began in April 2003, is testing unconventional ways of getting messages about kidney disease risks to African-Americans.

Volunteers in the four cities have staged talks and distributed educational materials in "beauty shops, malls, grocery stores, and a major emphasis has been on churches," Lea said. Methods that prove successful will be expanded into a nationwide educational campaign.

The survey was taken last summer before the project started, as a way of gauging how much African-Americans already know about kidney disease.

The results were disturbing. Forty-four percent of the 2,000 participants already had one of the major risk factors: They suffered from diabetes or high blood pressure, or had a close relative who did.

But only 15 percent were already aware that their risk of getting the disease was higher than average.

In addition, Lea said, 48 percent of the participants were unable to name any of the causes of the disease. And only 13 percent knew that kidney disease can smolder for years without producing any warning symptoms.

"Kidney disease is a silent killer," Lea said. "People find themselves in the emergency room on dialysis before they even know they have a problem."

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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