Utah County Health Department reports success, room for improvement

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The Utah County Health Department’s annual report for 2016 reflects the successful year the Health Department experienced as well as improvements the department is striving to make in 2017.

Utah County is currently the third healthiest  county in Utah, according to a letter in the report from Ralph L. Cregg, the Utah County Health Department executive director.

The report includes updates on the Department’s eight divisions. Highlights include a recount of the Utah Lake algal bloom response and information about births and deaths in 2016. Additional information on mosquitoes; the Women, Infant and Children program; infectious diseases; and chronic disease prevention and more is available.

“2016 was a big year for us,” said public information officer Aislynn Tolman-Hill. “We had a lot of accomplishments … definitely a lot of improvements.”

The algal bloom in Utah Lake contaminated 90 percent of the 100,000 acre lake last summer. Over 20 agencies collaborated to test and treat the cyanobacteria-infected water, according to the report. The Utah County Health Department mainly aided in signage and media relations, as over 360 news stories covered the bloom throughout the summer months, said Utah Health Department Deputy Director Eric Edwards.

With the bloom already starting to cause problems again this summer, Edwards said he remains hopeful in putting an end to the contamination.

“Whatever the solution’s going to be, it’s going to be a partner collaborative approach. The Health Department alone can’t do it,” Edwards said. “It’s going to take the public. It’s going to take agriculture. It’s going to take land use practice and all sorts of different things to slowly, over time, make an impact on this.”

Another problem the county dealt with was the Zika virus scare. Zika has not been found in the mosquitoes in Utah County. But the Health Department was in charge of tracking cases of individuals with the Zika virus that came to the state from areas where Zika was present, wrote Clegg in his letter. Two Zika cases were tracked and 113 individuals were put under surveillance for Zika.

The mosquitoes in Utah County were also tested for West Nile virus in 2016. According to the report, of the 321 mosquito pools tested, zero tested positive for West Nile Virus. In addition, 11, 569 mosquitoes were trapped last year (the lowest amount in the last 11 years) and 137,075 acres were treated for mosquitoes.

Though zero mosquitos tested positive for West Nile virus last year, this year mosquitos in Draper — which is partially in Utah County — tested positive for the virus.

One ongoing issue the Utah County Health Department faces is the leading cause of death in Utah County and for all age groups nationwide: heart disease.

Edwards, who said heart disease is linked to heredity, also said the risk of heart disease is minimized when individuals choose healthy lifestyle.

He suggested things like eating more fruit and vegetables, drinking more water and regular exercise to decrease risk of heart disease. He also said the Utah County Health Department offers classes and workshops to prevent and manage chronic disease, such as “Living Well With Diabetes” or “Youth End Nicotine Dependence” classes.

Edwards said taking advantage of services like these can help to extend and enhance life.

“That’s really our goal,” he said. “We all want to live longer, but we want to live a high quality of life for a long time.”

In addition to overcoming challenges, the Health Department had no lack of victories, either.

The Women, Infants and Children program had 131,949 clients take advantage of its services last year. The total number of parents educated in community classes like “Nutrition Education” and “Happiest Baby on the Block” was 7,392.

Women, Infants and Children provided a breastfeeding rest stop at the Utah County Fair last year, which 45 mothers and babies used. This was a 31 percent increase from 2015. Ninety-two percent of mothers in the Women, Infants and Children program also started breastfeeding, the report states. Edwards said this percentage is significant because mother and baby often give up on breastfeeding after the first attempt, losing out on the benefits from breastfeeding.

Utah County also saw a significant decrease in a few reportable infectious diseases compared to the five-year average from 2011 to 2015. Most notably, cases of whooping cough decreased from the five-year average of 228.4 cases to 34 cases, according to the report.

Edwards said while there were still outbreaks of whooping cough, it makes a big difference when adults get their booster immunizations and ensure their children are being vaccinated. He said vaccination can prevent babies and people with weakened immune systems from contracting the disease.

From left: Commissioners Greg Graves, Larry Ellertson, William “Bill” Lee, Rosemary Thackeray and Ralph Clegg pose for a photo while health science professor Rosemary Thackeray accepts the Friend of Public Health Award for the BYU Health Science Department in 2016. The announcement of the award was part of the Utah County Health Department Annual Report for 2016. (Utah County Health Department)

BYU also made an appearance in the Utah County health report. The Health Science Department received the Friend of Public Health Award for its work with the Utah County Health Department.

BYU’s involvement with the Health Department ranges from student internships to graduate student semester projects. Tolman-Hill said BYU students often get volunteer hours for their work with the Utah County Health Department, and they played a large role last year in nearly doubling the department’s volunteer hours from 2015 to the 2016 total of 8,235.

BYU helped improve Baby Steps, which aims to help pregnant mothers and their partners stop or minimize smoking during and after pregnancy. The program is built around the needs of the participants, and mothers are incentivized to progress through the program with free diaper vouchers, Tolman-Hill said.

“We had a BYU master’s of public health student about three years ago that did an extensive evaluation of Baby Steps,” said Linnea Fletcher, the tobacco prevention and control program manager. “She interviewed women in the program and got feedback. Based on that feedback, she gave recommendations to our program and we made improvements.”

Another BYU information technologies graduate student helped the Baby Steps program develop an app that allows participants to communicate with the program coordinator. Data is still being gathered on the effectiveness of the app.

Last year the Baby Steps program had 11 graduates, according to the report.

Tolman-Hill and Edwards said they hope BYU students can use information from the 2016 Health Report to take charge of their own health and to become aware of the many services available to them at the Utah County Health Department.

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