State’s ability to prevent and control infectious diseases questioned

0 | Environment, Immunizations, Public Health

— Kansans could be more vulnerable to infectious disease threats than residents in many other states, according to a report released today.

The report — produced by Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy organization, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — ranked Kansas near the bottom of states for its ability to prevent and control infectious disease outbreaks, giving it passing grades on only four of 10 indicators.

The report said the state’s low ranking was due to several factors, including cuts in public health funding, low vaccination rates and a lack of planning for how to deal with infectious disease threats posed by climate change.

Kansas was one of 19 states that received a score of four or lower.

Miranda Steele, a spokesperson for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, downplayed the report saying that measuring a limited number of indicators does not constitute a “comprehensive look” at the state’s public health system.

Kansas received points for having a state laboratory capable of handling “a significant surge in testing” in response to a disease outbreak. But it fell well short of targets for vaccinating children against whooping cough and vaccinating Kansans of all ages against the seasonal flu.

The report cited the state for failure to plan for potential increases in infectious diseases due to climate change:

“Small changes in temperature, a half a degree here and there, can greatly affect the ecosystem and can cause increases in mosquitos and ticks and other carriers of infectious disease,” said Rich Hamburg , TFAH’s deputy director, explaining why the controversial indicator was included in the report.

Acknowledging the politics surrounding the issue, Hamburg said states didn’t need to have a finished climate change adaptation plan to meet the requirement. If they had taken any steps to formulate a plan — which 15 states had done, according to the report — that was good enough.

“You get a point here if you’re just thinking about it, if you’re starting to put some plans in place,” he said.

Kansas also received zero points for its efforts to combat the spread of the human papillomavirus, or HPV. The 24 states and the District of Columbia that scored better either required teenagers to be vaccinated against HPV or funded vaccination and education efforts.

KDHE’s Steele said the TFAH report — while generally correct — ignores the fact that Kansas uses some of the money it receives for a cervical cancer screening program to educate Kansans about HPV and how to prevent it.

“These activities focus primarily on screening but do include some information on HPV vaccination,” Steele said.

A similar report issued last year prompted criticism from Gov. Sam Brownback.

He said it didn’t paint an accurate picture of the state’s public health readiness.


Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino.

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Dr. Gianfranco Pezzino — a senior fellow at the Kansas Health Institute, the parent organization of the KHI News Service — said there is no consensus on the best indicators to use in assessing a state’s capacity to deal with infectious diseases. Even so, the former Kansas state epidemiologist said the TFAH report is valuable because “it raises important issues that we should be talking about.”

Hamburg said he believes the report fairly measures states’ overall capacity to deal with infectious diseases.

“We need to strengthen fundamental capabilities,” Hamburg said. “State and local health departments need to have expert workers and state-of-the-art tools. If they don’t have those tools and they don’t have those resources, then we won’t be able to adequately mitigate these (infectious disease) outbreaks.”

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