Jefferson’s health picture full of puzzles

CHARLES TOWN – The infant mortality rate in the state’s easternmost three counties has more than doubled in the last decade, skyrocketing within the last five years, according to a report from the West Virginia University School of Nursing.

Trina Bartlett, the coordinator of community research initiatives at the eastern division of the nursing school and a co-author of the report, told Jefferson County commissioners that rate has increased even faster in Jefferson County, from 3.4 deaths per 1,000 infants in 2000 to 9.6 deaths per 1,000 in 2009 – a rate that is far higher than the national average and similar to that of the countries of Oman and Costa Rica.

Trina Bartlett

Trina Bartlett

“To me, one of the very surprising (findings) for all three counties was the infant mortality rate, said Bartlett, who appeared before commissioners at their most recent meeting.

The infant mortality rate in Morgan County stands at 18.5 deaths per 1,000, a rate worse than that in Albania and only slightly better than that in Colombia.

Bartlett said the trend for infant mortality is baffling given many of the study’s other findings, including increasing access to prenatal care and declining rates of smoking and drinking during pregnancy.

“That’s one of the things were we need to go back in and ask why, with basically every indicator saying that the infant mortality rate should go down, infant mortality is going up,” she said.

Bartlett says there are no firm answers to why the infant mortality rate is growing, but she speculates two factors could play an important role: an increasing minority population and increasing child poverty, which has grown even as Jefferson County’s median household income has grown significantly.

While the white population of Jefferson County only grew 24 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the study, the black population grew by 50 percent and the Hispanic population grew by 239 percent. That change could account for some of the increased infant mortality rate, Bartlett said.

“If you look at infant mortality rates, they are much higher in minority populations – particularly in the African American population – than they are in the white population,” Bartlett said. “It’s alarming.”

“It’s the same thing if you live in poverty,” she said. “If you are born in poverty, there are automatic health disparities right there because your access to services is automatically limited.”

According to the report, The number of Jefferson County women who smoked during pregnancy decreased substantially from 2000 to 2010, moving from 21 to 16 percent. Statewide, however, the percentage ticked up from 26 to 27 percent.

While the inflation-adjusted median income has grown a very healthy 11 percent in Jefferson County and the percentage of families living in poverty has fallen, according to figures in the study, the number of children living in poverty has increased sharply from 11.4 in 2000 to 14.7 in 2010.

She said there is not enough data to draw any clear conclusions about the trend’s causes. Another striking trend has been the divergence of Jefferson County from other counties in terms of overdose deaths. While these have been steadily rising throughout the state and in the other counties of the Eastern Panhandle, the rates have been declining in Jefferson County since at least 2009.

“If you look at it over time, we saw a peak in 2007 and then it has gone down. If you look at the other counties, it continued to go up,” Bartlett said. “I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if it means that Jefferson County has been doing more [to decrease drug use].”

“The community might want to go back and ask, ‘Did we start changing something during that time period?”

Bartlett said the study, which is available online, also identified a number of major health issues facing the county.

Bartlett said among health concerns in Berkeley County was a big increase in lung cancer. She said, lung cancer has been linked to radon, which measures exceedingly high in that county.

“We’ve got to think about educating people more about radon,” she said.

Poll: Most back higher cigarette tax

MORGANTOWN – A survey of West Virginia adults shows 60 percent would favor higher cigarette taxes if the revenue would benefit public health.

Forty-three percent back an increase of $2 per pack or more.

The 2012 survey of 2,132 smokers and non-smokers was recently released by researchers at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health.

The Adult Tobacco Survey asked whether people favored a conditional increase and how much.

The state’s current tax is just 55 cents — ranking 44th in the nation.

Only North Carolina, North Dakota, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia and Missouri have lower taxes on smokes.

In 2011, a bill to raise West Virginia’s tax by $1 died.

Investigator Valerie McClung says higher prices deter young people from using tobacco and encourage adults to cut back or stop.

– The Associated Press

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