03/24/13 — Wayne County health: 59 out of 100

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Wayne County health: 59 out of 100

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 24, 2013 1:50 AM

A new study released last week by the University of Wisconsin ranks Wayne County as the 59th healthiest county in the state.

The news did not come as a surprise to Davin Madden, Wayne County health director, who likens the annual report to a moving target.

It is a tool by which health departments can assess strengths and weaknesses, he said, especially when drawing comparisons among the state's 100 counties.

"I think the thing about the county health ranking data is to not use it as necessarily the definitive evaluation of a county's health because the factors that they use, first of all the criteria that they use, that's changed in the last couple of years," he said.

In fact, the factors change so frequently, it makes it difficult to even compare findings from year to year. And along with that, he noted, there is a constant domino effect -- if one county's health improves, another county's value has to shift.

The latest report showed that most of the unhealthiest counties in the state are in the southeast or northeast, with the healthiest counties typically located around the larger cities.

Wake County ranked first in the state, followed by Orange County in second. Johnston County was in 27th place and Pitt County was in 52nd place.

Neighboring county rankings had Duplin in 55th place, Greene in 66th, Wilson at number 70 and Lenoir in 88th place.

In last place was Columbus County, where 37 percent of children reportedly live in poverty, compared with 25 percent statewide. The study showed 28 percent of residents there are in poor or fair health.

Wayne County has 18 percent of residents in poor or fair health, compared to 18 percent statewide and 10 percent nationally.

In other categories, Wayne had a 33 percent adult obesity rate, higher than the state's rate of 29 percent and that of the nation, at 25 percent.

The number of sexually transmitted infections and teen births were also markedly higher than the state and national benchmarks. In Wayne County, STDs were at 622 per 100,000 for the year, while the state numbers were at 445 and nationally, it was 84. The teen birth rate in Wayne County for 2012 was 65 per 1,000, compared to 50 for the state and 22 nationwide.

Madden said despite some of the alarming findings, the scores serve as a magnifying glass, which will be helpful in moving forward and making decisions about community health.

"I know that there are areas that we did good in," he said. "A lot of these are things we discovered when we did the community health assessment. We probably need to look at (them) in going forward in the future, how we're going to address those issues.

"We can't put all our eggs in one basket. We can make a lot of improvements in those categories but if others (counties) do that, too, it's not going to allow us to move forward on the scale."

The areas of STDs and teen pregnancy remain one of the "ongoing challenges" in Wayne County, the health director said. There have been many efforts targeting the problem, including the WISH centers, the school-based health programs in the school system and community outreach programs like a mass testing and neighborhood canvasses done by the Health Department to raise awareness of the STD epidemic that has remained elevated in recent years.

"Some of those numbers have gone down. We still have numbers that are much higher than the state average. That's where we need to begin to focus. We have put some safeguards into place that have lowered the numbers but we haven't shifted the numbers very drastically," Madden said.

"It's a battle when you have different types of behaviors and health behaviors, sexual behaviors. What we have really got to work on is education into the areas where you have those risky behaviors, and make people buy into it."

The process of making improvements is ongoing, the health director said, and one he and his staff will continue to discuss and work to remedy.

"My goal is, and our goal as a community is, to try to move us out of the bottom half and into the top half," he said.