December 11, 2013

Maine slips in health rankings of states, but still in top third

Child immunization rates and air quality improved in 2012, but we're not making progress on obesity and binge drinking.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A major outbreak of whooping cough was bad news for many Mainers in 2012, but it might have come with a silver lining: a dramatic increase in the percentage of Maine children being immunized.

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Nolan Davis, 11, of Hollis, looks away Tuesday as he receives a vaccination from nurse Becky Dyer at South Portland Pediatrics. Maine’s immunization rates for diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, measles and mumps improved significantly in 2012. “I’m relying on research rather than rumor” about the need for immunization, said Nolan’s mom, Crystal Davis. “We do it to try to prevent any kind of illness down the road.”

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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Key indicators of Maine's health

Click the buttons below to compare trends since 2000.

Smoking rate (% of adult population):

Rate in 2012: 22.8%
in 2013: 20.3%

Where Maine has improved since 2012:

Smoking

Violent crime

Child poverty

Cardiovascular deaths

Physical inactivity

And where things got worse:

Obesity

Binge drinking

Cancer deaths

Source: United Health Foundation, America’s Health Rankings 2013

The pertussis outbreak and immunization increase are among more than 50 measures included in America’s Health Rankings 2013, a widely cited annual state-by-state report released Wednesday. While Maine had some areas of improvement, and some areas that slipped, the report downgraded Maine’s overall ranking from 15th to 16th healthiest in the nation.

Despite its relatively high ranking, Maine continues to face health challenges, including rates of binge drinking, cancer deaths and smoking that are among the highest in the U.S., as well as an increasing obesity rate.

The state’s immunization rates for diseases such as tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, measles and mumps show significant improvement. The percentage of children ages 19 months to 35 months who were fully immunized increased from 69 to nearly 73, raising Maine’s ranking from 21st to 12th.

The immunization rate among children ages 13 to 17 increased from nearly 60 percent to 65 percent, pushing the state from 24th to 20th.

It’s hard-won improvement, said Dr. Jonathan Fanburg, who practices at South Portland Pediatrics, a MaineHealth affiliate. Fanburg credits a recent multifaceted effort by health care professionals and state officials to increase children’s vaccination rates and boost the “herd immunity” for all Mainers.

“It’s a struggle – a battle at times – to stamp out the misinformation that’s out there and provide accurate information for parents,” Fanburg said.

Despite persistent concerns about vaccines’ safety, Fanburg said he assures parents that “they’re safe, they’re effective and they’re much less expensive than the disease.”

Crystal Davis of Hollis knows a few mothers who oppose immunization or question the safety or need for it. She and her husband, Chad, trust the recommendations of health officials and the doctors at South Portland Pediatrics. Their children Nolan, 11, and Paige, 6, are up to date on their immunizations.

“I’m relying on research rather than rumor,” Crystal Davis said. “We do it to try to prevent any kind of illness down the road.”

Fanburg noted that Maine recently adopted a universal childhood vaccine program, which provides vaccines to health care professionals at reduced cost because the state buys them in bulk from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, all Mainers can be immunized regardless of their health insurance or ability to pay.

Last year’s whooping cough outbreak likely encouraged Mainers to get immunized, Fanburg said. The number of reported pertussis cases increased from 202 in 2011 to 737 in 2012, reflecting a national trend in the worst year of pertussis infection in more than 50 years.

“We get lax because we don’t see these diseases every day,” Fanburg said. “That’s very often the benefit of immunization, but you can’t stop it.”

This year, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported 196 cases of pertussis from January through July 26, compared with 333 in the same period in 2012. Data for the last several months was unavailable Tuesday, said John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

MEASURING HEALTH IN THE STATES

Started in 1990, America’s Health Rankings is a yearly report based on data from various sources, including the CDC, the American Medical Association and the FBI. Its goal is to raise public awareness, influence public policy and improve public health. This year, Hawaii was ranked the healthiest state, while Mississippi was ranked the unhealthiest. Lower numbers indicate healthier rankings.

Maine’s 2012 ranking was adjusted, along with all states, to reflect changes in health measures that were made to produce more accurate rankings in the 2013 report but still allow year-to-year comparisons. The adjustment moved Maine’s 2012 ranking from ninth to 15th.

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