Report takes temperature of Walla Walla County residents' health

Several of the 22 categories studied show room for improvement.

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WALLA WALLA - The health of you and your neighbors has been summed up in 22 categories within a report generated by the Walla Walla County Public Health Department.

In the document released in late December, health officials gave a picture of the county's critical and healthy areas, as well as those earning a caution light.

We don't do so well at obesity rates and we haven't improved on the number of adult suicide deaths, for example. But we are seeing the dentist more and battling Chlamydia infections enough to improve those numbers.

To garner a "Healthy" rating, a category's numbers must be the same as or better than:

• Itself in previous years.

• The rest of Washington state.

• The nation.

• Federal guidelines, when available, for the same category.

Earning a "caution" rating means one indicator is worse than all of the above, while "critical" means two or more indicators took a dive.

The "2010 Community Health Report" was built on information gathered and reported on in 2009 by the Walla Walla County Public Health Department. The report was expanded from prior years by adding new indicators such as teen obesity rates, pediatric dental care, diabetic adults, children and adults with health insurance and adults suffering poor mental health - all factors worth of monitoring, county health officials stated.

The data draws from a county population of 59,600 with a median age of nearly 37 that is almost equally divided by gender, with males being two percent higher. About 16 percent of us are age 65 and older, while 22.4 percent of us are 18 and younger.

More than 80 percent of us have a high school diploma and nearly 18 percent of us live under the federal poverty line. Geographically, we squeeze 46 people into each of our 1,270 square miles, compared to 88.6 in the state.

Walla Walla County's median income is $41,121 while the state's median is $52, 413. Our annual unemployment rate, according to sources such as Washington state Office of Financial Management, hovered at 6.7 percent, up nearly two percent from the year before.

"What the demographics show us is that our income here is lower than the rest of the state and we have a fair number of families and children living in poverty, explained Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department. "And with that, the health of the community will suffer a little bit, as they don't have the access and resources to health care in order to maintain their health."

Under "Critical" comes:

• First-trimester prenatal care, earned because the county has seen a drop in the number of women seeking care during that stage of pregnancy from 2007 to 2008, and does not meet the federal "Healthy People 2010" target goal.

• Adults intent to do self-harm, or suicide. Walla Walla County is doing slightly worse than the state and our suicide rates more than doubled between 2006 and 2008.

• The reported childhood immunizations rate in this area of the state is much lower than the rest of Washington, falling far behind federal goals for 2010.

Getting a "Caution" mark this past year were:

• Teen and adult obesity - Walla Walla County is twice as heavy in this area for teens and the adult rate is not meeting goals set forth by the federal government.

• As well, teen physical activity here is far below federal recommendations for daily exercise, giving this category a yellow light.

• Drinking alcohol is also a problem in this county for teens and adults. The number of eighth- and 12th-graders drinking has risen, and the number of adults binge drinking is not meeting federal goals.

• Walla Walla County adults are not doing as well as they could in screening for cervical cancer, reporters found. While consistent with state levels, federal guidelines call for better numbers. Perhaps linked is the number of grown-ups with health insurance, which also received a caution rating for not meeting national goals.

There was also good news in the 2010 report. Walla Walla County saw improvement in some areas, earning those areas the "Healthy" rating:

• For starters, our teens contemplate suicide at no higher of a rate than their peers around the state, nor do they get pregnant any more often.

• Walla Walla County adults do better than elsewhere in the state and nation at eating fruits and vegetables, and they are lowering local smoking rates. As well, we are on par with state and federal rates of adults reporting being affected by poor mental health, which officials also rate as "healthy."

• Too, adults age 50 and over are consistent with the state in rates of screening for colorectal cancer.

• Kids here are getting better dental care, with significant increases in the number of children between ages 0-5 having access to a dentist. Adults, too, fare decent - nearly 74 percent of those 18 years and older reported seeing a dentist or dental clinic in 2009.

• 99 percent of the county's kids also inched up the ratings for having health insurance and adults held steady in having a personal care provider, the report noted.

Several of these ratings will change in 2011-2012, Crowder said. "Loss of funding will result in fewer children and adults with health insurance. In the same vein, we lose our Oral Health and Tobacco Prevention funding effective Jan. 1. I would expect to see fewer Medicaid-eligible children with access to dentistry and the loss of dental care for adults on Medicaid will certainly reduce the number of adults with dental care."

The data presented in the "2010 Community Health Report," along with data from the University of Wisconsin, will help Walla Walla County work to develop a community health improvement plan, he added.

Data for the 2010 Community Health Report came from a number of resources, including Washington state Department of Health, March of Dimes, Healthy People 2010, American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, National Institute of Health, National Institute of Mental Health and The Obesity Society.

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