Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

 

Help Your Children Build a Healthy Smile for Overall Health

February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, and it is a time to remind parents how important a healthy smile is for the overall health and self-esteem of children and teenagers. Cavities (also known as caries or tooth decay) are one of the most common chronic conditions of childhood in the United States. Untreated cavities can cause pain, and infections that may lead to problems with eating, speaking, playing, and learning.

Cavities are caused by a breakdown of the tooth enamel by acids produced by bacteria located in a film that collects on teeth. Although cavities are largely preventable, 21 percent of children aged 6-11 years had at least one cavity in their permanent teeth in 2011-2012.

The American Dental Association (ADA) notes that Americans are consuming foods and drinks high in sugar and starches more often and in larger portions than ever before. For example, in the U.S. individuals consume approximately 50 gallons of sugary beverages per year. Common activities that include grazing habitually on foods with minimal nutritional value, and frequently sipping on sugary drinks contribute to the tendency toward tooth decay. Starches can be found in everything from bread to pretzels to salad dressing, so read labels and plan carefully for a balanced, nutritious diet.

The ADA offers the following tips for parents to reduce their children’s risk of tooth decay:

  • Consume sugary foods and drinks with meals. Saliva production increases during meals and helps neutralize acid production and rinse food particles from the mouth.
  • Limit between-meal snacks. If kids crave a snack, offer them nutritious foods.
  • If your kids chew gum, make it sugarless. Chewing sugarless gum after eating can increase saliva flow and help wash out food and decay-producing acid.
  • Monitor beverage consumption. Children should make healthy beverage choices such as water and low-fat milk.
  • Help your children develop good brushing and flossing habits.
  • Schedule regular dental visits.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children who have poor oral health often miss more school and receive lower grades than other children receive. Teaching children to develop the habit of brushing and flossing, along with regular dental visits, helps them keep healthy smiles.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(February 2019)

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Vaccinate and Screen to Prevent and Treat Cervical Cancer

January is Cervical Health Awareness and Screening Month, and understanding the need for immunization, early detection, and prompt treatment is vital. More than 11,000 women in the United States are diagnosed with cervical cancer each year, but the disease is nearly always preventable with vaccination and appropriate screening. This is especially important in this state because Alabama has one of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the nation.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that is spread through sexual contact. The virus has approximately 40 known types that can cause genital warts and many cancers. Cervical cancer is the most common HPV-associated cancer, and some other cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils) are caused by HPV.

Cervical cancer causes the death of about 4,000 U.S. women each year. Because HPV usually does not exhibit any symptoms, it is possible to have it without knowing it - and to unknowingly spread the virus to others. This can be prevented with a series of safe, effective vaccines that will protect women - and men - against the most common types of HPV and their related health problems.

The HPV vaccine (Gardasil) protects against over half a dozen types of cancers including cervical, penile, and oropharyngeal. Two doses of HPV vaccine are recommended for most boys and girls starting the series before their fifteenth birthday. Though HPV vaccination can start as early as age 9, the best time to be immunized is age 11 or 12 as part of regular scheduled vaccines which include Tdap, influenza, and meningococcal. It is very important for preteens in this age group to be vaccinated on schedule so they are protected before they are exposed to the virus.

A Pap test can find cell changes to the cervix caused by HPV. While there is not treatment for the virus itself, health care providers can treat diseases caused by HPV. The Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Detection Program, coordinated by this department, offers free cervical and breast cancer screenings to women who qualify.

For additional information and to determine whether you are eligible, please visit www.alabamapublichealth.gov/bandc on this website or call, toll free: 1-877-252-3324. Chances of survival today are better than ever before, and the earlier cervical cancer is detected, the better the outcome.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(January 2019)

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Follow Fire Safety Recommendations and Enjoy a Safe Holiday Season

The holiday season is a great time to enjoy family and traditions, but it only takes one spark from a candle or old wiring for that perfect evening to turn into a house fire.

December is one of the leading months for home fires, and this is a good time to remind ourselves of some fire safety tips. The National Fire Protection Association provides the following recommendations to identify and prevent potential fire hazards.

  • Stay in the kitchen when frying, grilling, or broiling food. If you must leave, even for a short time, turn off the stove.
  • Give space heaters space. Keep fixed and portable space heaters at least 3 feet from anything that can burn. Turn off heaters when you leave the room or go to sleep.
  • Ask smokers to smoke outside. Provide sturdy, deep ashtrays for smokers.
  • Keep matches and lighters out of reach of children, preferably in a cabinet with a child lock.
  • Inspect electrical cords and replace cords that are cracked, damaged, have broken plugs, or loose connections.
  • Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day are the most frequent days of the year for home candle fires. Keep candles at least 1 foot from anything that can burn. Blow out candles when you leave the room or go to sleep.
  • Make a home fire escape plan and practice it at least twice a year.
  • Install smoke alarms on every level of your home, inside bedrooms and outside sleeping areas. Interconnect smoke alarms throughout the home, so when one sounds, they all sound.
  • Test smoke alarms at least once a month and replace batteries once a year or when the alarm “chirps” to warn the battery is low. Replace any smoke alarm that is more than 10 years old.
  • If building or remodeling your home, install residential fire sprinklers. Sprinklers can contain and may even extinguish a fire in less time than it would take the fire department to arrive.

Home fires are preventable – take steps to protect your family, not just during the holidays but every day.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(December 2018)

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Harmful Lead Paint Remains In Millions of Older Homes; Make Sure Lead Safety Is a Part of Home Repairs

Beware of lead paint. Although today’s house paints do not contain lead, old paint applied before 1978 is likely to contain it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warns that any home improvement work around lead paint can create a lead dust or chips that can be hazardous to the health of children and adults. Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning.

Lead paint is still present in millions of homes, sometimes under layers of newer paint. If your home was built before 1978, there is a good chance it has lead-based paint. Deteriorating lead-based paint (from peeling, chipping, chalking, cracking, dampness or other damage) is a hazard that needs immediate attention. Even in well-maintained homes, lead dust can form when lead-based paint is scraped, sanded, or heated during home repair activities. Lead paint chips and dust can get on surfaces and objects that people touch. Settled lead dust can re-enter the air when the home is vacuumed or swept, or when people walk through it.

Lead poisoning can affect people of any age, race, geographic region, or socioeconomic level. Of particular concern, however, are young children (under the age of 6 years) because of their developing central nervous system. Young children are at greater risk because their normal hand-to-mouth activities bring them in greater contact with the lead in their environment. They also absorb and retain the lead they ingest more readily than adults.

Using a lead-safe certified contractor could prevent these eight issues in young children:

1. Learning disabilities
2. Behavior issues
3. Diminished motor skills
4. Lower intelligence
5. Hearing loss
6. Brain damage
7. Memory loss
8. Headaches

Home repairs that create even a small amount of lead dust are enough to poison your child and put your family at risk. To reduce exposure to lead dust, it is especially important to maintain all painted surfaces in good condition and to clean frequently to reduce the likelihood of chips and dust forming. Using a lead-safe certified renovator to perform renovation, repair, and painting jobs is a good way to reduce the likelihood of contaminating your home with lead-based paint dust.

The State of Alabama has a Lead Contractors Certification Program, a statewide program authorized by the Lead Reduction Act of 1997, that established the procedures for certification of contractors or firms that perform lead-based paint inspections, risk assessments, abatement, and renovation activities in target housing (pre-1978) and child-occupied facilities. To be lead certified in Alabama, individuals must successfully complete training from an Alabama approved training provider, register, and obtain accreditation as an individual with The University of Alabama Safe State Environmental Programs, and get their firm certification/license with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

For lead testing and removal, the ADPH recommends you contact local lead-safe certified renovation contractors, which can be found through this website at alabamapublichealth.gov/lead.

Make sure you renovate correctly with a contractor that is Lead-Safe Certified. When deciding which certified firm to choose, ask the firm to provide you with a copy of its certification credentials and references of recent clients and completed jobs. Remember, using a lead-safe certified renovation contractor is the law.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(November 2018)

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Regular Screening, Lifestyle Changes Help Fight Breast Cancer

Breast cancer is a disease in which cells in the breast grow out of control. When breast cancer spreads outside the breast through blood vessels and lymph vessels, it is said to have metastasized.

Breast cancer screening means checking a woman’s breasts for cancer before there are signs or symptoms of the disease. Health care providers need to inform all women about the best screening options for them, their benefits, and risks. Although breast cancer screening cannot prevent breast cancer, it can help find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat. Talk to your doctor about which breast cancer screening tests are right for you, and when you should have them.

A mammogram is an X-ray of the breast. Mammograms are the best way to find breast cancer early, when it is easier to treat and before it is big enough to feel or cause symptoms. Having regular mammograms can lower the risk of dying from breast cancer. At this time, a mammogram is the best way to find breast cancer for most women.

A clinical breast exam is an examination by a doctor or nurse, who uses his or her hands to feel for lumps or other changes. Being familiar with how your breasts look and feel can help you notice symptoms such as lumps, pain, or changes in size that may be of concern. These could include changes found during a breast self-exam. You should report any changes that you notice to your doctor or health care provider.

Did you know that in addition to having regular mammograms done to detect breast cancer early, there are other lifestyle changes you can make to help reduce your risk of breast cancer?

You can reduce your breast cancer risk by staying at a healthy weight, being physically active, and limiting how much alcohol you drink. In addition, regular mammograms can often find breast cancer early when treatments are more likely to be successful.

Women age 40 to 64 may qualify for free breast cancer screenings through the Alabama Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program, if they have limited income and have no insurance or are underinsured. Free services include a clinical breast exam, mammogram, and diagnostic services such as an ultrasound or biopsy if needed.

For more information about screenings offered at no charge to you, visit alabamapublichealth.gov/bandc, call the Alabama Department of Public Health toll-free at 877-252-3324, or contact your local county health department.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(October 2018)

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Page last updated: March 11, 2019