The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

December 18, 2013

State response to disease threats lagging

According to reports from two national health advocacy groups

CHARLESTON — West Virginia is lagging in its approach to handling infectious disease threats, including the failure to meet benchmarks for flu and whooping cough vaccinations, two health advocacy groups said Tuesday.

The report issued by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that outdated systems and limited resources are hampering the nation’s ability to prevent and control infectious disease outbreaks.

While huge advancements against infectious diseases since the 1940s have made it possible for the majority of Americans to live much longer lives, “we can’t become complacent against the threat that they pose,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director of the Trust for America’s Health. He said infectious diseases cost the nation about $120 billion each year.

The report found West Virginia met four of 10 indicators of infectious disease preparedness. Nine states scored lower than West Virginia. New Hampshire had the highest score, meeting eight of the 10 indicators.

The report said West Virginia didn’t maintain or increase funding for public health programs from the 2011-2012 to 2012-2013 fiscal year. Only 17 states met that goal.

West Virginia also didn’t vaccinate at least half of its population ages 6 and older during the 2012-13 flu season — a benchmark met by one-fourth of the states — and didn’t meet a federal goal of vaccinating 90 percent of preschoolers against whooping cough. Only two states met the whooping cough benchmark.

The report said West Virginia isn’t among the 24 states that either require or fund a cervical cancer vaccine for teens, or educate parents or guardians about the vaccine for the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV. But state Department of Health and Human Resources spokeswoman Allison Adler said West Virginia does provide HPV vaccines to more than 400 providers across the state along with making educational materials available in print and online.

The Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration say the vaccine can help prevent many of the 18,000 cancers in women and 8,000 cancers in men caused by HPV each year.

The report also found West Virginia lacks a plan for severe weather, air quality and other environmental threats that includes addressing health concerns. And state public health officials didn’t evaluate an emergency management plan through a real event or exercise in fiscal 2012-13.

West Virginia met indicators for mandated health facility reporting of infections and Medicaid coverage of routine HIV screening. The state also has the capability to handle a surge in testing in response to a disease outbreak and the timely transportation of samples to the appropriate health lab.

Adler said the report “only captures a few areas of assessment, and should not be considered an all-or-nothing report.” For instance, West Virginia has a strong immunization requirement for pertussis, she said.

She also pointed out the state scored above the national average on a recent assessment of health security preparedness conducted by the CDC and other organizations. That assessment measures five categories: health surveillance, community planning and engagement, incident and information management, surge management, and countermeasure management.

“We believe (the state) is doing a good job at protecting against infectious disease threats, but we are always looking for ways to improve,” Adler said.

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