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Posted December 28, 2012 | comments Leave a comment

Health district looks ahead to next year

By Kim Walter

Even though 2012 is ending, a few health-related topics will carry over into the new year, according to Lord Fairfax Health District Director Charles Devine.

The influenza activity level across the state is labeled as "widespread," which came as a surprise to health officials. There are four outbreaks in the district currently.

"It's definitely here early this year," Devine said Friday. "And there's really no telling what next week or next month will bring."

Devine said the peak of flu season didn't come until late February and early March of 2012, and didn't manage to teeter off until June. He's urging anyone who hasn't already gotten their flu shot to receive it as soon as possible.

Even though there was a brief "scare" with swine flu, Devine said he feels it won't be a problem at this point moving into 2013, and said the main focus is on influenza.

Another vaccine that Devine said he hopes community members will get is the one to combat pertussis, or whooping cough. A few cases were reported in Virginia and neighboring states earlier this year, and the local health district had a "special supply" of the vaccine, which was funded, making it free for those who received it.

"That special supply is completely exhausted," Devine said. "But individuals can still get it through the health department or their physician ... I just can't guarantee that it will be free."

Devine said the illness is still serious and recommends the vaccine for those who might be around infants, particularly those less than six months of age.

Two incidents involving rabies occurred in the month of December, and Devine said he hopes community members will take necessary precautions.

On Dec. 3, a skunk attacked a dog in Page County, north of Luray, and on Dec. 21, a skunk attacked another dog less than two miles away from the first attack. Both skunks later tested positive for rabies, and no human exposure to the disease took place.

"It's great that no humans have been affected, but I'm still interested in seeing all pets vaccinated," Devine said. "Rabies is here, sporadically throughout the district, so it is important that pets be protected so they don't fall victim to it."

Additionally, Devine encourages people to avoid contact with wild animals and to report stray animals to local animal control agencies.

The largest project the health district is looking forward to for 2013 is already under way, but will gain momentum in the next year, Devine said.

The district is partnering with Shenandoah University's undergraduate school of public health to research not only infant mortality rates and causes of it, but also the causes of disparity in rates between different groups of people. The project is community, not medically, based.

Devine said step one of the project is ongoing, and includes interviewing those with expertise in maternal and child health, as well as individuals who work with medically underserved communities.

The research will mainly focus on populations in Page County, which is medically underserved, Clarke County, a typical medically served community, and Frederick County, which has major access to medical services, Devine said.

Approval and funding have already been obtained, so the whole project is already "off the ground."

"This next year, we will focus on reaching out to the community to create a forum with those who feel they are stakeholders in the topic of infant mortality," Devine said. "We want to interact with as many individuals as possible so we can find out what they perceive to be contributing factors."

Devine said the region is fortunate that infant mortality rates are low in comparison to the state average, however "within the region, we have populations of people whose rates are greater than the district average."

"We're interested in why certain groups are producing certain numbers, and then taking it a step further to identify ways to improve those numbers overall," Devine said.

Community members should keep an ear out for announcements pertaining to scheduled meetings to discuss the topic.

The project will take about three years to complete, Devine said, and the resulting research will be published and given to the state health department.

"This year will be big in terms of this project," he said. "It's rather exciting to be doing such important research at the local level."

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com

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