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Complaint: Racial bias behind health woes in Alabama county

An advocacy group claims Alabama health officials are discriminating against residents of a poor, mostly black county by failing to address sanitation problems that led to an outbreak of a parasite most common in underdeveloped countries.

Posted: Sep 28, 2018 2:54 PM

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An advocacy group claims Alabama health officials are discriminating against residents of a poor, mostly black county by failing to address sanitation problems that led to an outbreak of a parasite most common in underdeveloped countries.

San Francisco-based Earthjustice said Friday it filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government on behalf of residents of Lowndes County, which is one of Alabama's poorest areas yet lies just a few miles west of the state capital of Montgomery.

The nonprofit environmental law firm contends state and county health officials have failed to address sewage conditions that led to a hookworm problem in the county, which once was a hotbed of civil rights activity and is part of an impoverished region called the Black Belt.

Dr. Scott Harris, head of the Alabama Department of Public Health, said he hadn't seen the complaint but denied that racial bias was behind the agency's actions in Lowndes County. He says the agency is working on solutions.

"It's not a race problem, it's a poverty problem," Harris said in a telephone interview.

The area's dense soil, composed of clay and chalk, reduces the effectiveness of ordinary sewage systems, and some homes drain human waste directly into open pits or ditches that overflow during storms. The complaint, filed with Health and Human Services, contends state and county health officials have failed to address the problem.

"We hope that the Department of Health and Human Services will exercise its power under federal civil rights law to resolve the discriminatory conduct that has long deprived African-American residents in the Black Belt from functional wastewater systems and adequate protections of their health," Earthjustice attorney Anna Sewell said in a statement.

The state has denied claims made in a study about a hookworm outbreak in the county, which has a population of roughly 10,000 people. Nearly three-quarters of them are black, and Census statistics show more than 30 percent live in poverty.

The anti-poverty nonprofit Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, which initiated the complaint, said the sewage problem in Lowndes is another form of racial oppression toward black residents.

A study by Baylor University last year concluded that about one-third of the county's residents tested positive for low levels of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that typically spreads through human feces. It is most commonly found in non-industrial nations in the Southern Hemisphere.

State health officials released an announcement in April disputing that the county was suffering an outbreak of hookworm. The study released last year was based on technology not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, Harris said, and it wasn't large enough to be statistically meaningful.

"Our view isn't to say there's no hookworm problem, it's to say that study didn't validate that," said Harris. "There are problems that need to be addressed and we support efforts to do that."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Confirmed Cases: 37542

Reported Deaths: 1272
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Hinds304154
DeSoto200920
Madison150839
Jones123149
Harrison118316
Rankin113719
Neshoba104577
Forrest104343
Lauderdale97281
Scott83115
Jackson80419
Washington75313
Copiah67516
Leake63520
Lee63022
Grenada6259
Oktibbeha62328
Warren60021
Holmes59841
Lamar5847
Wayne56819
Yazoo5667
Lowndes54917
Leflore53956
Lincoln53835
Pike51120
Lafayette5094
Sunflower5058
Panola4616
Monroe46036
Simpson4533
Covington4505
Bolivar41618
Tate39513
Attala38624
Newton37710
Adams36720
Pontotoc3636
Marion34912
Claiborne31511
Pearl River30832
Chickasaw30219
Winston30211
Marshall2973
Jasper2826
Noxubee2799
Walthall2748
Clay26211
Smith25612
Union25612
Coahoma2356
Clarke22825
Lawrence2162
Yalobusha2089
Tallahatchie1974
Montgomery1863
Kemper18414
Carroll18311
Humphreys17410
Calhoun1705
Hancock15213
Itawamba1478
Tippah14711
Jefferson1373
Webster13511
Prentiss1274
Tunica1263
George1253
Jefferson Davis1254
Greene11610
Alcorn1112
Amite1113
Tishomingo1091
Quitman1011
Wilkinson1019
Perry914
Stone772
Choctaw764
Franklin572
Sharkey480
Benton470
Issaquena111
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Confirmed Cases: 56441

Reported Deaths: 1136
CountyConfirmedDeaths
Jefferson7012170
Mobile5061140
Montgomery4599112
Tuscaloosa274353
Madison25359
Marshall205012
Shelby176425
Lee164737
Morgan13975
Baldwin134111
Walker111332
Elmore107622
Etowah106914
Dallas10189
DeKalb10017
Franklin95016
Unassigned77728
Autauga71515
Russell7130
Chambers68530
Cullman6686
Limestone6653
Butler65529
Houston6417
Tallapoosa63069
Lauderdale6006
St. Clair5983
Calhoun5545
Colbert5286
Escambia5128
Lowndes49222
Pike4805
Jackson4422
Coffee4364
Covington43512
Talladega4177
Dale4061
Barbour4022
Bullock37810
Hale36323
Marengo36111
Chilton3452
Blount3311
Clarke3236
Wilcox3158
Marion30914
Winston3095
Sumter29713
Pickens2786
Randolph2759
Monroe2683
Perry2552
Conecuh2388
Bibb2271
Macon2229
Choctaw22012
Greene2009
Henry1573
Washington1529
Lawrence1460
Crenshaw1343
Cherokee1317
Geneva1010
Fayette901
Clay892
Lamar891
Coosa671
Cleburne481
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