Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

Reduce Risk of Age-related Macular Degeneration and Related Vision Loss

Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is the leading cause of blindness in older Americans, affecting more than 2 million people age 50 and older. It causes damage to the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision.

Symptoms include blurriness, dark areas in vision, and distortion. Over time, the blurred area may grow larger or the person may develop blank spots in central vision. Objects also may not appear to be as bright as before.

Researchers have found links between AMD and some lifestyle choices. There is currently no known cure for macular degeneration, but there are things one can do to reduce its risk and possibly slow its progression after diagnosis that include the following:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight
  • Maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish
  • Have regular eye exams

Vision loss is ranked among the top 10 causes of disability in the U.S. AMD by itself does not lead to complete blindness; however, the loss of central vision in AMD can interfere with simple, everyday activities such as the ability to see familiar faces, drive, read, write, or do close work.

According to the National Eye Institute, age is a major risk factor for AMD. While the disease is most likely to occur after age 60, it can occur earlier. Other risk factors for AMD are as follows:

  • Smoking. Research shows that smoking doubles the risk of AMD.
  • Race/Ethnicity. AMD is more common among Caucasians than among African Americans or Hispanics/Latinos.
  • Family History/Genetics. People with a family history of AMD are at higher risk. At last count, researchers had identified nearly 20 genes that can affect the risk of developing AMD. Many more genetic risk factors are suspected. Because AMD is influenced by so many genes plus environmental factors such as smoking and nutrition, currently no genetic tests can diagnose AMD, or predict with certainty who will develop it.

On a positive note, new treatments over the past 10 years have dramatically changed the course of AMD. In addition, low vision aids such as magnifiers and telescopic glasses can make the most of remaining vision, helping make AMD more manageable than ever before.

Early and intermediate stages of AMD usually start without symptoms, so make an appointment with an ophthalmologist for a dilated eye exam today.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(March 2018)

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Modify Your Lifestyle for a Healthier Heart

Heart disease is the single leading cause of death in Alabama, and our state has the second highest rate of deaths related to heart disease across the entire nation. These statistics might sound alarming, but the good news is that coronary artery disease is highly preventable by modifying risk factors.

The American Heart Association lists the following seven major risk factors for coronary heart disease:

  • Cigarette and tobacco smoke
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Lack of a healthful diet

Tobacco use is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease, and when it acts with other factors, it greatly increases risk. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance, and increases the tendency for blood to clot. Free assistance is available by visiting QuitNowAlabama.com or calling 1-800-Quit-Now (1-800-784-8669) for those who would like to stop smoking. Information and counseling sessions are confidential. Those who begin counseling can receive, if medically eligible, a free, eight-week supply of the nicotine patch to assist in their attempt to quit.

Two-thirds of Alabamians are overweight or obese, which puts them at risk for cardiovascular disease. Choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, the American Heart Association advises. As part of a healthy diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish(preferably oily fish-at least twice per week), nuts, legumes, and seeds. Try eating some meals without meat, and select lower fat dairy products and poultry (skinless). Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and red meat.

Be sure to exercise. Being physically active is one of the most important steps to take to improve health – and the good news is that physical activity is anything that gets a body moving. Regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits, such as a reduced risk for chronic disease, lower stress levels, and weight loss.

It is recommended that adults get 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Despite busy schedules, there are easy ways to get the suggested amount. Walking a dog, washing a car, gardening, raking leaves, taking the steps instead of the elevator, and working up a sweat playing a favorite sport are all examples of physical activity. The key is to start small, just move 10 minutes at a time, and then work up to more activity for a longer amount of time. Exercise should be a part of everyone’s personal routine.

Some risk factors, such as age, sex, and heredity, cannot be changed, so it is even more important to manage modifiable risk factors. Authorities agree that a long-term, healthy lifestyle is the best defense against these risks.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(February 2018)

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Be Antibiotics Aware in 2018

The Alabama Department of Public Health joins the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a campaign to encourage patients, families, and health care professionals to learn about safe antibiotic prescribing and use.

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 die as a result. Antibiotic resistance, one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health, occurs when bacteria no longer respond to the drugs designed to kill them.

The Be Antibiotics Aware campaign provides educational resources to help health care professionals improve antibiotic prescribing. Be Antibiotics Aware also educates the public on what illnesses antibiotics treat, how to take antibiotics appropriately, and that antibiotics can have minor to very severe side effects.

Antibiotics are critical tools for treating common infections, such as pneumonia, and for life-threatening conditions including sepsis. Antibiotics are only needed for treating certain infections caused by bacteria. Antibiotics will not help some common bacterial infections including most cases of bronchitis, many sinus infections, and some ear infections.

Any time antibiotics are used, they can cause side effects and lead to antibiotic resistance. When antibiotics are not needed, they will not help, and there can be harmful side effects. Common side effects range from rashes and yeast infections to severe health problems such as Clostridium difficile infection (also called C. difficile or C. diff), which causes diarrhea that can lead to severe colon damage and death.

Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Patients and families should talk with their health care professional if they have any questions about their antibiotics, or if they develop side effects, especially diarrhea, since that could be C. difficile, which needs to be treated.

Antibiotics are not effective in treating viruses, such as colds and flu, or runny noses, even if the mucus is thick, yellow, or green. Respiratory viruses usually go away in a week or two without treatment. Patients and families can ask their health care provider about the best way to feel better while their body fights off the virus.

Keep yourself and others healthy by practicing the following:

  • Cleaning your hands
  • Covering your coughs
  • Staying home when sick
  • Getting recommended vaccines--for example, for influenza

Antibiotics save lives. When a patient needs antibiotics, the benefits outweigh the risks of side effects and antibiotic resistance.

To learn more about Be Antibiotics Aware resources and antibiotic prescribing and use, visit cdc.gov/antibiotic-use. Improving the way antibiotics are taken helps people stay healthy now, helps fight antibiotic resistance, and ensures that life-saving antibiotics will be available for future generations.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(January 2018)

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Keep Safety in Mind While on the Road During the Holidays

The holiday travel season is upon us, and with that comes added traffic and congestion on the roadways. Driving during the holidays can be stressful, so be sure to buckle up before you hit the road. Motor vehicle crashes are among the leading causes of death in the United States, and the simple act of buckling your seat belt could prevent needless injury or the loss of life.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that seat belt use prevented an estimated 64,000 deaths in the U.S. during the years 2011 to 2015. It also found that about 40 percent of Alabamians live in rural areas - and increasing growth in rural parts of the state is consistently shown to be associated with increased crash-related death rates and lower seat belt usage.

When traveling with children, be sure they are properly buckled up and are in child safety restraints appropriate for their age and weight. Infant seats, including boosters, are very effective in protecting children in crashes. According to the CDC, securing children correctly reduces serious and fatal injuries by more than half. A booster seat positions the adult-designed seat belt correctly and safely, and offers children greater comfort and visibility. Older children are also a priority, and those age 12 and under should always ride in the back seat. The vehicle’s manual and the safety seat instructions are excellent tools to use to install car seats correctly. Even better, have your seat installed and checked by a Certified Child Passenger Safety Technician.

Being properly secured is important, and there are other tips to remember. Regardless of your age, it is illegal to use a cell phone while driving to send or receive text messages, instant messages, or e-mails. While Alabama law does not restrict drivers from making phone calls while driving, the Alabama Department of Public Safety suggests you practice caution when doing so. Follow these recommendations if you must make or receive a call while driving:

  • Safely pull off the road.
  • Use hands-free devices.
  • Do not engage in emotionally heated conversations.

To ensure that good habits are learned and imitated, teen passengers and drivers should see their parents practicing safe driving techniques.

Whenever you get into your vehicle, remember to buckle up on every trip and ask others in your vehicle to do the same so we will have a safe and happy holiday season!

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(December 2017)

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Learn Healthy Lifestyle Changes That Can Help Prevent Diabetes

November is National Diabetes Month. Do you know that you can delay or even prevent diabetes by learning your risk factors and making a few lifestyle changes?

Preventing diabetes has never been easier, and it starts by making a commitment to live a healthier lifestyle. Key actions that can prevent, delay, control, or manage diabetes include the following:

  • Eating nutritious food, including eating more fruits and vegetables
  • Engaging in regular physical activity, at least 30 minutes every day
  • Losing weight
  • Stopping smoking
  • Getting influenza and pneumococcal vaccines as recommended
  • Having regular foot exams, eye exams, and HbA1c tests from your healthcare provider.

These changes are important because uncontrolled diabetes contributes to high blood pressure, stroke, kidney disease, blindness, lower extremity amputations, depression, and other serious complications.

Taking care of yourself and your diabetes can help you feel better both today and in the future. When your blood sugar is close to normal, you will have more energy, be less thirsty, heal better, and have fewer skin or bladder infections.

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes, please talk with your doctor about being referred to a diabetes self-management education class, where you will learn to check blood sugar levels, make a diabetes meal plan, and get tips to include exercise as part of your daily routine. If you have borderline diabetes, there are diabetes prevention classes available. Even if you do not have diabetes yourself, there is a good chance that a family member or friend does.

A wealth of information about diabetes, ranging from general information to menus and recipes, is available at this website at alabamapublichealth.gov/diabetes, and a satellite conference and live webcast will be held November 14, World Diabetes Day.

Over half a million adults in Alabama have diabetes – so take steps to protect your health and live a longer, healthier life.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(November 2017)

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Page last updated: April 2, 2018