Category Archives: Public Health

Bats: Not so bad, but please don’t touch


BatsBy Amy Tseng
Public Health – Seattle & King County

Bats have an unfortunate reputation. A small, unscientific survey of our staff said they associate bats with “vampires,” “Mitzvah,” “Michael Keaton,” and “Nelson Cruz.”

Clearly, we needed to learn more. So we sat down with our in-house expert, Public Health Veterinarian Beth Lipton, who reminded us that bats aren’t all bad, but you really shouldn’t touch them.

Let’s start with some myth-busting.

True or false: Bats are evil and suck our blood:

Bats are no more evil than any other animal, and our Washington bats do not suck blood. They actually eat a large amount of night-flying insects, including moths, beetles, mosquitoes, termites and flies. Bats are actually very beneficial to our environment and ecology because they help preserve the natural balance of the insect population – particularly mosquitoes.

True or false: Bats are blind:

Continue reading


Raccoon latrines: Yes, they’re a thing, and they are as gross as they sound


You’ve probably not heard the words “raccoon” and “latrine” put together. For instance, it’s doubtful that you’ve heard, “So, what’s up with the raccoon latrine in the corner of your yard?” uttered at the neighborhood block party.

But it is a thing. A raccoon latrine is a site where those furry, masked critters repeatedly deposit their feces in one particular spot. Raccoons prefer sites that are flat and raised off the ground, but they also use the base of trees, and occasionally, open areas.

Common sites for raccoon latrines are roofs, decks, unsealed attics, haylofts, forks of trees, fence lines, woodpiles, fallen logs, and large rocks.

It’s never pleasant to have a latrine on your property, no matter who is using it. But if it was created by raccoons, it’s also a health hazard.

Photo courtesy of Darkone via Wikipedia Creative Commons License Continue reading


Pesticides and Pot: What marijuana users should know


Cannabis_leaf_marijuana_potBy Jeff Duchin, MD
Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County

The passage of I-502 in 2012 means that marijuana is now a legal crop in Washington State. Growers of most of the fruit and vegetables we eat routinely use pesticides and other chemicals to reduce or eliminate crop destruction.

Because marijuana is considered illegal by the federal government, the crop stands outside the federal pesticide evaluation and oversight system.

In Colorado and elsewhere, pesticides that were not approved for use on marijuana have been reported in product from recreational stores.

Could this happen in Washington?The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) has tried to address this gap by providing growers with  a list of pesticides that may be used by marijuana growers, along with an explanation of the criteria used to select the pesticides.

These pesticides were selected because their use on marijuana plants would not be in direct conflict with federal law (they are allowed on other food products) and they are considered to pose minimal risk to health when used as directed.

Marijuana retailers are required to document all pesticides used on marijuana products that they sell and provide customers and regulators the information on pesticides used upon request.

The potential for pesticides to be present in marijuana is not new and was a concern before the legalization and regulation of medicinal and recreational marijuana products. Pesticides can pose a risk not only to marijuana users but also to workers who use the products and to the environment.

We don’t know that the problem is worse at this time than before regulation, and given the fact that there are now requirements for growers regarding acceptable pesticide use in  marijuana sold by regulated stores (and soon to include “medicinal marijuana” sold at regulated stores) the risk may be lower at this time than in the past. Continue reading


Workplace wellness programs put employee privacy at risk


wellness-sig-2By Jay Hancock

Houston workers who checked the fine print said they weren’t sure whether they were joining an employee wellness program or a marketing scheme.

Last fall the city of Houston required employees to tell an online wellness company about their disease history, drug and seat-belt use, blood pressure and other delicate information.

Whether or not your health information stays private is anything but clear, an examination by Kaiser Health News shows.

The company, hired to improve worker health and lower medical costs, could pass the data to “third party vendors acting on our behalf,” according to an authorization form. The information might be posted in areas “that are reviewable to the public.” It might also be “subject to re-disclosure” and “no longer protected by privacy law.”

Employees could refuse to give permission or opt not to take the screen, called a health risk assessment — but only if they paid an extra $300 a year for medical coverage.

“We don’t mind giving our information to our health care providers,” said Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which objected so strongly along with other employees that the city switched to a different program. “But we don’t want to give it to a vendor that has carte blanche to give that information to anybody they want to.”

Millions of people find themselves in the same position as that of the Houston cops. As more employers grasp wellness as the latest promised solution to soaring health costs, they’re pressuring workers to give unfamiliar companies detailed data about the most sensitive parts of their lives.


But whether or not that information stays private is anything but clear, an examination by Kaiser Health News shows. Continue reading


7 questions to ask your employer about wellness privacy


Question markBy Jay Hancock and Julie Appleby

If your company hasn’t launched a wellness program, this might be the year.

As benefits enrollment for 2016 approaches, more employers than ever are expected to nudge workers toward plans that screen them for risks, monitor their activity and encourage them to take the right pills, food and exercise.

Q. What information will my employer see?
Q. How many other companies see my wellness data?

This involves a huge collection of health data outside the established medical system, not only by wellness vendors such as RedbrickAudax and Vitality but also by companies offering gym services, smartphone apps and devices that track steps and heartbeats. Such partners pass worker results to the wellness providers.

Standards to keep such information confidential have developed more slowly than the industry. That raises risks it could be abused for workplace discrimination, credit screening or marketing, consumer advocates say.

Here’s what to ask about your company’s plan. Continue reading


Ouch! Vaccination rates for older adults falling short


Vaccine SquareBy Phil Galewitz

Three out of four Americans older than 60 don’t get a shingles vaccine to protect themselves from the virus’ miseries: rashes over the face and body, stinging pain that can last for weeks or months and the threat of blindness.

Sometimes people must feel a pound of pain – someone else’s – to take a shot of prevention. Dr. Robert Wergin tells of one elderly patient with shingles who came to his Milford, Neb., office this summer. “I’m sorry, doc, I should have listened to your advice to get the shot,” the man said. A few weeks later, the man’s wife and brother, both in their 60s, visited Wergin, asking for the vaccine.

One in three seniors each year skips the flu vaccine.
Four in 10 seniors are not vaccinated for pneumonia.
Nearly half of seniors are not immunized for tetanus

“It’s amazing how once people see the disease up close, getting the vaccine suddenly raises up on their list of priorities,” said Wergin, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

The shingles vaccine is not the only shot that public health officials are struggling to persuade older Americans to get. Continue reading


Q&A: Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin on attacking the drug epidemic


VermontBy Elaine S. Povich

In January 2014, Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin devoted his entire State of the State address to the opiate drug scourge ravaging his state. While Vermont is not the only state to experience the growing addiction problem, it arguably has been the most aggressive in tackling one aspect of it — offering treatment to residents who agree to participate.

Gov. Shumlin

Gov. Shumlin

Within six months of his speech, Shumlin, a Democrat, signed bills and executive orders that included $6.7 million for a “hub and spoke” treatment program of central facilities and small treatment outposts, a medication-assisted addiction therapy program, tougher sentences for drug traffickers and new regulations for prescribing and monitoring prescription drugs. One of biggest changes is giving people who are picked up by police the choice of treatment instead of criminal prosecution.

In January 2015, the state reported that medically assisted drug treatment had increased by 40 percent. Of those who completed treatment plans, 75 percent showed improved functioning. But the report also said more treatment opportunities are needed, citing the difficulty in hiring and retaining clinicians and other health care providers as a major obstacle.

A year and a half after his groundbreaking speech, Stateline checked in with Shumlin to talk about his progress and what remains to be done. Continue reading


States pressed to increase efforts to reduce drownings


life-jacket-float By Michael Ollove

Accidental drowning is the second leading cause of death for U.S. children under age 5, after birth defects. For youngsters under 15, only traffic accidents are responsible for more deaths by injury. And while drowning rates have declined slightly since the turn of the century, African Americans continue to die from drowning at considerably higher rates than whites.

Faced with such stubborn figures, public health advocates and researchers complain that state and local governments aren’t doing enough to prevent drowning deaths. Critics say most states don’t have sufficient laws or don’t enforce laws that could lessen the chances of drowning, such as requirements for fencing around private pools and the presence of trained lifeguards. And, they say, too little is being done to make sure that children have swim lessons and water safety skills.

“There is so much that can and should be done,” said Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Injury Research and Policy. Continue reading


Fairs and petting zoos are in season: tips to avoid animal-spread illnesses

Rooster looking through the wires of a cage

Photo by dragonariaes

From the Washington State Department of Health

Millions of people go to agricultural fairs and petting zoos this time of year, and children of all ages love to be around the animals.

Taking a few safety precautions can help reduce the chance of getting sick after spending time with animals or their surroundings.

“We encourage people to enjoy their local fairs and petting zoos,” said State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy. “Just make sure your visit is a safe one. Washing your hands is the number one way to do just that.”

Handwashing is the most effective way to reduce chances of getting sick. The spread of illnesses from animals, such as those caused by E.coli and Salmonella, are commonly linked to hand-to-mouth contact. Continue reading


States where pot is legal struggle with ‘drugged driving’


Cannabis_leaf_marijuana_potBy Sarah Breitenbach

Washington State Patrol Sgt. Mark Crandall half-jokingly says he can tell a driver is under the influence of marijuana during a traffic stop when the motorist becomes overly familiar and is calling him “dude.”

The truth in the joke, Crandall says, is that attitude and speech patterns can be effective markers for drugged driving. Continue reading


Lessons for the Puget Sound from Chicago’s deadly Heat Wave


heat-wave1-e1438208691939By Ashley Kelmore
Public Health – Seattle & King County

Our hotter-than-usual summer in the Pacific Northwest likely won’t reach the extremes of the 1995 Chicago summer heat wave, which killed 733 people.

But some of the issues from that catastrophe are relevant to us here and now, and Dr. Eric Klinenberg describes them in his fascinating book Heat Wave.

Klinenberg proposes that the temperature and humidity are not solely to blame for illness and death from heat.

Instead, it is the heat combined with the systems society has set up (or not set up) that failed people in a complicated way.

Similar neighborhoods, deadly differences

Klinenberg focuses on comparing two neighborhoods that are similar in basic demographics, and even have the same microclimate, but had VERY different death rates.

To explain this disparity, he looks at how the different neighborhoods function. Are people too scared to leave their buildings to seek cooler locations (such as libraries or movie theaters)?

Are they too worried about their finances to turn on the life-saving window AC unit to cool themselves down?

Are they isolated from support systems that could have intervened to make sure they were doing okay? In many cases, the answers are “yes,” “yes,” and “yes.”

Chicago’s government and how they responded (or failed to respond) was also a factor, according to Klinenberg.

Front-line police officers were tasked with community policing but didn’t check in on the community.

Fire chiefs ignored warnings from their staff that they should have more ambulances available.

And sadly, the health commissioner didn’t really ‘get’ that something was amiss. Klinenberg also explores the role the media played in not treating the story with the gravity it deserved until late into the heat wave. Continue reading


Doctors order fewer preventive services for Medicaid patients – study finds


Blue doctorMichelle Andrews

Gynecologists ordered fewer preventive services for women who were insured by Medicaid than for those with private coverage, a recent study found.

The study by researchers at the Urban Institute examined how office-based primary care practices provided five recommended preventive services over a five-year period.

The services were clinical breast exams, pelvic exams, mammograms, Pap tests and depression screening.

The study used data from the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, a federal health database of services provided by physicians in office-based settings.

It looked at 12,444 visits to primary care practitioners by privately insured women and 1,519 visits by women who were covered by Medicaid between 2006 and 2010.

That difference reflects the fact that the share of women who are privately insured is seven times larger than those on Medicaid, the researchers said. Pregnancy-related visits and visits to clinics were excluded from the analysis.

Overall, 26 percent of the visits by women with Medicaid included at least one of the five services, compared with 31 percent of the visits by privately insured women. Continue reading