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ND earns low ranking in ability to protect against infectious threats

Stock Image This is the ebola virus magnified 108,000 times. A new report, “Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases,” gave North Dakota a four out of 10 score in its ability to protect against infectious threats.

North Dakota has some work to do in the area of infectious disease control and prevention, according to a national report made public Tuesday.

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Findings released as the product of a joint venture between Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation listed the Peace Garden State with a score of four out of a possible 10 when graded out on what the report lists as “key indicators of policies and capabilities to protect against infectious disease threats.”

Called “Outbreaks: Protecting Americans from Infectious Diseases,” the report cited North Dakota as being one of 34 states to grade out at a five or lower.

The three states to score the lowest, with a mark of two, were Georgia, Nebraska and New Jersey, while six states along the eastern seaboard, along with Washington and Oregon, got the highest marks with scores of seven.

The report included information about both commonly known infectious diseases — such as the flu, measles and whooping cough — and emerging threats like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, which is relatively new.

“The country has made great strides in preventing and controlling infectious diseases over the past half-century,” said Rich Hamburg, deputy director of Trust for America’s Health. “That is a big positive. However, we need to make sure that we don’t become complacent against the threats that continue to be posed. We find that the nation’s ability to prevent, control and treat infectious diseases is hampered by some outdated systems and limited resources. We looked at 10 major indicators and North Dakota scored with most states at five or below.”

Because the study was not comprehensive, Hamburg said it would be difficult to pinpoint specific trends in different regions of the country, though some surprises showed up, including the fact that Mississippi — usually a state that scores low in such studies, Hamburg said — leads the nation in childhood vaccinations.

Though Hamburg said North Dakota had a higher rate of vaccinating its children than its neighbor South Dakota, the state still fell short of two of the study’s key indicators: vaccinating at least 90 percent of 19- to 35-month-olds against whooping cough — a specific Department of Health and Human Services goal — and successfully vaccinating at least half of a state’s population age 6 and older against the flu for the 2012-13 flu season.

“The thought with whooping cough is that we haven’t seen a lot of it around here, so parents aren’t so adamant about getting their children vaccinated,” said Candace Kessel, an infections preventionist with St. Joseph’s Hospital in Dickinson. “With that, we see our vaccinations decrease because parents don’t feel it’s as of a risk and, with that, we see it coming back in those kids that aren’t vaccinated.”

Though whooping cough has been so scarce lately in North Dakota that the Department of Health doesn’t list its numbers among its disease program areas, the department does actively track confirmed cases of the flu. As of Tuesday, only between one and 10 cases have been confirmed in the eight-county region that makes up the heart of southwest North Dakota this flu season, all occurring so far in Stark County.

Whether it be vaccines for the flu, whooping cough or other infectious diseases, the topic of vaccines has been very much in the news over the course of the past several years as more parents have declined them for their children because of concerns about long-term health issues.

“I’d say the majority of our population is very good about getting vaccinated,” Kessel said. “But we do still have a fair number of people who are concerned about stories going around about autism and connections with vaccines, even though those stories have been discredited. There is still some nervousness, but I’m a very strong proponent of the flu vaccine. We strongly encourage everyone to get vaccinated.”

Every year, about 20 percent of Americans contract the flu, according to TFAH executive director and report author Jeffrey Levi, who participated in a conference call with reporters Tuesday morning. Levi said that cuts to federal and local funding mechanisms for public health departments since The Great Recession hit have contributed to added concern from the medical community about infectious disease.

While the report offered no specific cure-all remedy for the recent trend, it did recommend several steps that can be taken, including added awareness about the dangers of infectious disease, increased numbers of vaccinations, and added funding to public health programs and initiatives, though Levi admitted the mood among politicians in Washington, D.C., has not been one of cooperation or adding costs lately.

While the doctors, scientists and researchers continue to hash out the numbers on infectious disease, Southwest District Health Unit executive officer Sherry Adams said are simple steps those in western North Dakota can take to help prevent the spread of such diseases and viruses.

“The flu vaccination is actually recommended for everyone age 6-months and up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and anyone can still get the vaccine,” Adams said. “The flu is in our region right now, so we encourage people to make sure to wash their hands, cover their mouth when coughing and to stay home if they’re sick.”

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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