Experts say mean streets lead to unhealthy children
When Dr. Chris Landon looks at the boundaries of Oxnard’s recently imposed gang injunction, he sees the outlines of a health crisis.
Already, the Ventura, Calif., doctor has seen a high incidence of childhood asthma in the same area mapped by police as a gang zone. And he suspects that other health threats, such as childhood obesity, could be lurking there as well.
He thinks the problems are linked, at least in part, to a reluctance by parents to let children go outdoors for fear of neighborhood violence. Landon sees the gang injunction as a positive force, one that ultimately could improve the health and welfare of youngsters in some of Oxnard’s poorest and meanest neighborhoods.
“I see this as a blueprint for providing the things that children need,” said Landon, whose pediatric foundation has launched several health initiatives in the 6.6-square-mile safety zone established by police last month. Gang members are barred from meeting in public within the zone.
“We need to increase outdoor activity, increase access to medical care and access to education,” Landon added.
Physicians and researchers are starting to take a closer look at the link between community violence and children’s health.
A number of studies already point to a connection between exposure to violence and childhood psychological problems such as depression and anxiety. And there is ongoing work to examine the tie between high-crime communities and physical disease, said Dr. Rosalind J. Wright, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
“Violence exposure, unfortunately, is a pervasive fact of life in many inner-city communities in this country,” Wright said. “Living with violence not only impacts mental health but has now been tied to physical health.”
Dr. Howard Spivak, director of the Center for Children at Tufts University and chairman of the Youth Violence Task Force for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said it’s well known that communities with the highest health risks tend to be crowded, urban and poor. In that light, he said, it stands to reason that violence would also play a role.
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to find health issues that are significantly affected by the presence or prevalence of violence in the community,” Spivak said.
The stress of living amid violence could by itself be enough to trigger health problems, physicians said. People in high-crime areas may fail more often to keep medical appointments or follow prescribed exercise programs. And the fear of violence could lead parents to keep children indoors longer, lulling youngsters into a sedentary lifestyle that increases the risk of obesity or exposes asthma sufferers to mold and dust.