This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Alvin A. Reid

As the scourge of COVID-19 surged in early summer last year, President Biden enlisted the help of barber shops and beauty salons in a successful attempt to increase African American vaccine rates and spread knowledge about the pandemic.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director, backed Biden’s play, calling the tactic “solid.”

“That’s the reason you see what [President Biden] is doing, and all of us are doing to get people vaccinated. “We want to make it very easy for people to get the vaccine.”

The strategy worked, and now it is being used in taking on other health inequities in the St. Louis region and throughout the country.

According to the American Heart Association, more than 315,000 people currently suffer from high blood pressure in the St. Louis area – and most do not know they have it.

According to the American Heart Association, more than 315,000 people currently suffer from high blood pressure in the St. Louis area – and most do not know they have it.

That is six St. Louis Cardinal baseball games standing room only crowds.

AHA St. Louis has launched its Cutting the Pressure initiative, which partners with area barbershops to train and encourage community-based barbers to have important conversations with customers about blood pressure.

Prevention and early intervention can save a life. Someone with hypertension at age 30 is nearly 20% more likely to develop heart disease or stroke.

“With this initiative, we are meeting people where they are,” said cardiologist, Gmerice Hammond, M.D., who is an AHA board member.

“We are committed to eliminating structural drivers of health inequities that place Black and brown communities at increasing risk of heart disease. And, with the percentage of U.S. adults who have their blood pressure under control significantly declining in recent years, we believe this initiative can help more people get their blood pressure under control and save more lives.

“We encourage anyone with high blood pressure to speak with their physician or health care professional to collaborate on and commit to a treatment plan that will help them prevent the life-altering consequences of high blood pressure—heart attack, stroke and death.”

Cutting the Pressure is a collaboration between the American Heart Association, Cigna Foundation, Mercy St. Louis, St. Louis County Health, and the Gateway Region YMCA, dedicated to creating a culture of health in the greater St. Louis area by providing access to preventive resources to the community.

For more information or to be involved in the program, please contact Rachelle.Bartnick@heart.org.

A similar initiative is up and running in other regions, including Greensboro, N.C., where the program is titled Hair, Heart & Health.

Anthony Pettiford, owner of United Barber Shop, said, “people that come through this door just open up and talk about life.”

“People open up more in the barbershop. It could be about family stuff, sports, or politics. Sometimes it turns to health and loss,” said Anthony.

Through the program, salon and barbershop staff have been trained, blood pressure checks are being encouraged, and stylists and barbers are engaging their clients with heart health information to help reduce risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

  “One of our clients had a very high blood pressure reading. When I showed him the blood pressure chart, he didn’t believe that it was real,” Anthony said.

“Lots of Black males don’t like to go to the doctor. I’m glad that clients feel comfortable enough to talk about health, but the biggest thing we see in the barbershops when it comes to health conversations is misinformation.

Some people may be receptive to accurate health information, and some may not. You maybe can’t change everyone, but you might help save somebody.

Anthony Pettiford

Learning more about the risk factors and warning signs for heart disease and stroke, has let me and my barbers be able to share right information when health conversations come up. We are not doctors, but we can direct people to where to learn more so they can get the info they need. It’s nice to be able to give more right information when it comes to health.

According to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association [JAMA], barbershop-based health interventions are effective in lowering high blood pressure in Black men. The prevalence of high blood pressure among Black adults in the United States is among the highest in the world.

More than 40% of non-Hispanic Black men and women have high blood pressure, with Black Americans often developing high blood pressure earlier in life. 

“Some people may be receptive to accurate health information, and some may not. You maybe can’t change everyone, but you might help save somebody,” he said.