Over the past century, most of our nearly 30-year increase in average life span is because of improvements in sanitation and hygiene and more vaccinations against diseases. Today in the United States, infections and contagious diseases no longer appear in the top 10 causes of death or disability.
However, public health workers continue to be vigilant about watching for emerging diseases and health threats. We do not live in isolation. The next potential outbreak may be only a classroom, a visit to the mall or a plane ride away.
Health care providers diagnose and treat diseases in individuals every day. The state Department of Health website lists about 90 diseases and conditions that when they appear, health care workers must notify authorities. Under state law, notifiable condition reporting is required for health care providers, health care facilities, clinical laboratories, veterinarians and local health jurisdictions. Many of the conditions are extremely rare, but can be deadly. Some can spread easily, causing epidemics, if not detected and controlled.
Public health workers receive reports of these conditions and determine if the numbers reported are more than what is expected. This type of surveillance allows us to look at the community, instead of the individual, for diseases that have the potential to spread and threaten our health. We diagnose and treat early, we communicate widely about how to prevent exposure and, when possible, we offer preventive measures.
In spite of diagnosis, treatment and health education efforts, we have more than 600 cases of chlamydia reported each year. Chlamydia is a very common sexually transmitted disease and is our number one reportable condition. If everyone infected is diagnosed and treated, their sexual partners are treated, and people who are sexually active use barrier protection when they are having sex, we should be able to decrease the number of cases of chlamydia and other sexually transmitted diseases, like gonorrhea and syphilis, we see each year.
Gastrointestinal germs such as campylobacter, giardia, salmonella and shigella cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Are they preventable? Yes. With proper food handling and cooking, careful hand washing, and prevention of cross contamination, many diarrheal illnesses can be prevented.
What about respiratory illnesses? Infected droplets transferred from one person to another spread pertussis (whooping cough), measles, chicken pox, influenza, the common cold, croup and meningitis. How do you stop this? Cover your cough, wash your hands and stay home when you are sick.
Having unprotected sex, choosing not to be vaccinated, not washing hands, not cooking food thoroughly, and drinking unpasteurized milk are risks that some people take. If you do end up sick, keep it to yourself, use protection and do not spread it around.
We all have our role to play in preventing diseases. Doctors diagnose and treat. Public health workers monitor diseases, educate and make prevention recommendations. Most importantly, the community has to take action to prevent the spread of disease. Working together, we can help prevent contagious illnesses from taking a hold in our community.
Dr. Diana T. Yu is the health officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501 or firstname.lastname@example.org.