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Good job in flu outbreak, state health guys! As for local health guys ... eh

July 7, 2009 |  9:59 am

Flu When federal health officials declared a flu-related  public health emergency in April, state health departments in 46 states, plus the District of Columbia, got cracking to let the public know. Within about 24 hours, they had posted information about the new strain of H1N1 on their websites, most of it easily accessible. (No site map required.)

Out of 153 local health departments studied, only 52 did so within that time frame. Of those that did, most linked directly to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which makes more than a little sense.

Such are the findings in a new analysis performed by researchers at Rand Corp. and published online today in the journal Health Affairs. The report offers a look at state and local health officials' readiness for a public health emergency. As the researchers point out, chances to assess such preparedness are rare. The outbreak of so-called swine flu provided one such opportunity.

Potentially reassuring for Californians is that local folks fared fairly well in the survey, especially compared with Kansas. Here, 73% of the sampled counties offered up information online within that time frame; in Kansas, only 8% did so.

Of course, the quality of that information varied, as you may know if you tried to find something other than advice to wash your hands and stay home when you felt ill. That's why the link to the CDC comes in particularly handy. The site had a wealth of information during the outbreak. Still does. 

The researchers acknowledge that residents of some communities simply may not turn to their local or state departments for information, that they may get such news elsewhere. They suggest health officials need to improve how well they work with others in the community.

And of note, they point out that most health departments didn't provide information in multiple languages. Whether or not you think such information should be available, it's hard to deny the implications during an infectious disease outbreak.

The report concludes:

"In the past several years, federal funding for public health emergency preparedness activities has declined. This reduction in funding, coupled with the current economic crisis, has led many health departments to lay off staff and reduce their activities across the board (for both routine public health functions and emergency preparedness). Unfortunately, these cuts threaten to erase much of the progress that has been made over the past eight years and will likely lead to major degradations in U.S. preparedness and response capabilities."

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: Victor Cristoba wears a mask during a San Jose immigration rally in early May, soon after a public health emergency was declared. 

Credit: Associated Press