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Public health

When Kansas was ranked the most vulnerable state in the nation last year when it comes to infectious disease threats, officials decried the assessment.

"The report does not provide an accurate and thorough picture of the state's readiness to respond to health emergencies, disasters and terrorism," Gov. Sam Brownback said about the annual snapshot produced by Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy organization, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

"No matter the score, the report presents a skewed view of public health readiness, draws inaccurate conclusions and in no way indicates the actual preparedness level in Kansas," said Dr. Robert Moser, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

The study, which measures states' ability to deal with public health threats such as foodborne illnesses, infectious diseases, bio-terrorism and extreme weather events, concluded Kansas only met three of the 10 criteria established.

This year Kansas fared a little better, hitting four of the metrics. The Sunflower State ranks near the bottom, but at least we're not last any longer.

State officials hardly are celebrating. But apparently they're not working to improve the situation either. Instead, rebuttals and dismissals of the report continue.

A spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Miranda Steele, said the report does not offer a "comprehensive look" at the state's public health system.

That might be the case, but the indicators measured seem valid enough to at least warrant attention.

The report states: "Fighting infectious disease requires constant vigilance. Policies and resources must be in place to allow scientists and public health and medical experts to have the tools they need to control ongoing outbreaks -- such as HIV/AIDs, bacterial infections in hospitals and foodborne illnesses; detect new or reemerging outbreaks -- such as middle east Respiratory syndrome (meRs), whooping cough and drug-resistant infections; and even monitor for potential bioterrorist threats -- such as anthrax or smallpox."

Worldwide, infectious diseases are the leading cause of death of people younger than 60. In the United States, millions of Americans contract infectious diseases every year. Public safety issues demand attention and funding from government. This isn't one of those areas to cut when the limited-government factions dominate a statehouse.

Yet decreasing public health funding is precisely what is happening in Topeka. Last year's 4-percent cut marked the third straight year of declines. In this study, such a pattern lowers the state's score.

Another metric in the study is whether 90 percent of 19- to 35-month-old children are vaccinated against whooping cough. Kansas managed to reach 79 percent. KDHE might dismiss this measuring stick as well, but should examine whether it's related to the state's incidence rate of pertussis being almost twice the national average.

Vaccinating Kansans of all ages against the seasonal flu is supposed to hit 50 percent of the population; Kansas vaccinated 40.7 percent.

Kansas also scored a zero for its efforts to combat the spread of the human papillomavirus. HPV is a significant cause of cervical, genital and oropharyngeal cancer but since it's also the most common sexually transmitted infection, conservative governments often opt against dedicating resources to fight it.

A senior fellow at the Kansas Health Institute, Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino, said the TFAH report is valuable because "it raises important issues that we should be talking about."

But Kansas isn't doing that. Rather than dealing with the message, Topeka is choosing to attack the messenger.

While we would agree the Brownback administration is under no obligation to respond to every study some non-profit organization chooses to research and publish, simply dismissing this particular report isn't the correct approach either. Improving the overall public health of Kansas should be something that interests everybody.

Editorial by Patrick Lowry

plowry@dailynews.net