04/22/10 — Board of Health has evening meeting

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Board of Health has evening meeting

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 22, 2010 1:46 PM

A Board of Health meeting moved to a nighttime venue to attract more public input only drew a handful of attendees, many who had left by the time the public agenda topics were covered.

Wednesday evening's session at the Wayne County Public Library covered four primary topics, discussing how the local Health Department stacks up against its counterparts around the state -- early child health care, sexually transmitted diseases, minority health and teen pregnancies.

During an abbreviated public comment segment early on, only two issues were raised, both unrelated to the agenda. One man said he had hoped to learn more about President Barack Obama's pending health reform plan, while another expressed interest in the base realignment as it related to Goldsboro High School and its dropout rates.

Mostly, the two-hour public forum afforded department heads the opportunity to provide updates on programs and services offered by the Health Department.

The bulk of the discussion centered around the rise of sexually transmitted disease cases in the county.

"The numbers are going up, up, up in sexually transmitted diseases," said Annette Von Wald, one of the HIV/STD nurses in the STD department. "We had hoped that most of the community would be here and we could do more of a learning experience."

With more than 12 million cases of STDs in the U.S. each year, including 3 million teens, and a 77 percent increase in the number of cases of AIDS in young adults and teens since 1992, she said it has been alarming to realize a "syphilis epidemic" in recent years in Wayne County.

It is especially problematic, said Sheila Warren, another nurse in the STD clinic, because the majority who visit the Health Department have no evident symptoms.

"We test everybody that comes through the Health Department," she said. "Getting the people that don't come to the Health Department to get tested is where we're running into a problem with the outbreak."

The numbers in Wayne County have risen from three cases of syphilis in 2004 to 59 cases in 2009.

"We've already had 15 to 20 this year," she added. "We're No. 5 in the counties in population, but we're number 23 in syphilis cases (overall)."

Dr. Allan Harvin, a new member of the board, asked, "How do you explain the syphilis rate is going up when the HIV rate is not, since they're connected?"

"We have discussed it and discussed it," Ms. Von Wald said. "We don't know. ... It just seems to go in groups. We need to find them. We thought maybe we could start testing in the jails. WATCH has agreed to do some testing.

"I wish that syphilis was a test that all providers would do. It was a disease that we thought we were rid of but it's still with us."

Community testing efforts have been done, but without much success in terms of identifying new cases. More efforts are expected in the future, including sending out information to local physicians, said Evelyn Coley, director of nursing.

Minority health disparities are also a concern, said Rovonda Freeman, minority health coordinator, particularly in the areas of chronic disease, HIV/AIDS, infant mortality, cancer and obesity.

She attributed the problems to lack of health care coverage, barriers in early detection and lack of insurance. Coupled with that, she mentioned challenges of getting access to exercise or an inability to afford a gym membership, as well as access to healthy foods.

"How do we eliminate these things?" Ms. Freeman asked. "We're going to have to go to the streets ... and really educate African Americans, Hispanics, Asians."

Ultimately, she pointed out, it is not going to remain just a minority problem. As the ethnic makeup across the country shifts, it will one day be a universal problem.

In the meantime, her efforts are being pumped into getting the word out to the surrounding community. Grants have been secured to keep her department viable for the next three years, and she plans to exhaust every resource to address the issue.

She has already set up men's health information displays in three area barber shops and has targeted churches, schools and organizations to relay the message that the Health Department provides services and clinics to address medical needs.