Archived Messages

Messages from Acting State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

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.
Acting 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, 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.
Acting State Health Officer

(November 2017)

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Discuss Your Prescriptions With Your Health Care Provider

More than 30,000 people died in the United States in 2015 from an opioid overdose. Ninety-one people die every day because of opioid misuse and abuse, including prescription medications and synthetic opioid overdoses. The number of overdose deaths in this country has quadrupled over the past 15 years.

More than 700 people in Alabama died from a drug overdose in 2015. Our state has the highest level of opioid prescriptions in the nation, with numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing 5.8 million prescriptions being written for opioids in Alabama in 2015. That equates to 121 prescriptions for every 100 people in the state. Opioids are effective in managing pain, but patients need to know about the risk of dependency and addiction from their use. The epidemic is everywhererural areas, the suburbs, and urban areas, affecting people in all walks of life. With the high number of deaths associated with opioids, we need to increase awareness that they can be habit forming and decrease the number of individuals who either overuse opioids, use them recreationally, or use someone else’s prescription.

Nearly half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid. An opioid overdose can occur if taken with other medications such as benzodiazepines, alcohol, or sleeping aids. Many people are not aware of which medications are opioids or the risks associated with taking them. Commonly prescribed opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, tramadol, fentanyl, hydromorphone, meperidine, methadone, and morphine. Misuse of prescription opioid pain relievers is a risk factor for heroin use. Among new heroin users, approximately three out of four report having misused prescription opioids before using heroin.

To ensure patients use prescription medications appropriately, the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends the following:

  • Follow the directions as explained on the label or by the pharmacist.
  • Be aware of potential interactions with other drugs, and inform your health care provider about all other prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, and dietary or herbal supplements you are taking.
  • Never stop or change a dosing regimen without first discussing it with your health care provider.
  • Never use another person’s prescription, and never give your prescription medications to others.
  • Store prescription stimulants, sedatives, and opioids safely and out of children’s reach.
  • Properly discard unused or expired medications.

October is Talk About Prescriptions Month, and it is a great time to ask your health care provider about the potential risk of addiction—a major public health problem. For more information, visit

Scott Harris, M.D.
Acting State Health Officer

(October 2017)

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September is Childhood Cancer Awarenss Month

During September, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, I encourage the public to be aware of this condition that so deeply affects families across our state and nation. Cancer remains the leading cause of death from disease among children past infancy. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 10,270 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed among children from birth to 14 years, and about 1,190 children are expected to die from the disease in the United States in 2017.

According to the American Childhood Cancer Association, approximately 40,000 children are on active cancer treatment at any given time, and the average age of diagnosis is 6 years old, compared to 66 years for adults' cancer diagnoses. Cancer in children can be difficult to recognize because early symptoms are often like those caused by much more common illnesses or injuries. Children frequently become sick or have bumps or bruises that can mask the early signs of cancer.

Parents should have their child examined by a doctor if he or she has unusual signs or symptoms that do not go away, such as the following:

  • Unusual lump or swelling
  • Unexplained paleness and loss of energy
  • Bruising easily
  • Ongoing pain in one area of the body
  • Limping
  • Unexplained fever or illness
  • Frequent headaches—often with vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes
  • Sudden unexplained weight loss

While most of these symptoms are far more likely to have causes other than cancer, such as an injury or an infection, parents should contact their doctor at once so that a diagnosis can be made and their child can be treated if needed. Thanks to advances, there are hundreds of thousands of childhood cancer survivors.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is a member of the Alabama Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalition. Its vision, mission, special programs, and information about joining the coalition are described on this website at If you are interested in reducing the impact and burden of cancer on Alabama, please consider joining.

Scott Harris, M.D.
Acting State Health Officer

(September 2017)

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Protect Yourself and Others By Getting Immunized

National Immunization Awareness Month is an annual observance held in August to highlight the importance of vaccination for people of all ages, starting with infants. Getting vaccinated according to the recommended immunization schedule is one of the most important things parents can do to protect their children’s health and adults can do to protect their own health.

Diseases can quickly spread among groups of children who are not vaccinated. Whether it is a baby entering a childcare facility, a toddler going to preschool, a student returning to elementary, middle, or high school – or even a college freshman – parents should check their child’s vaccination records. All of these settings are prone to outbreaks of infectious diseases. Children can easily spread illnesses to one another due to poor hand washing, not covering their coughs, and other factors such as interacting in crowded environments.

Alabama law requires children of all ages to be up to date on their immunizations before attending school and childcare centers. Every child needs to be vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis – also known as whooping cough -- measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. Parents must provide their child’s school or childcare center with an updated Certificate of Immunization showing the month, day, and year their child received each of these vaccines.

Immunizations do not stop with small children – preteens, adolescents, college-age students, and adults also need vaccines appropriate for their age groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following four vaccines are needed to protect them against serious diseases:

  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine to protect against meningitis and blood infections (septicemia).
  • HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV.
  • Tdap vaccine to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough (pertussis).
  • Annual flu vaccine to protect against seasonal flu.

Vaccination is also recommended for adults. Even healthy adults can become seriously ill and pass diseases on to others. The CDC recommends that everyone have their vaccination needs assessed at their doctor’s office, pharmacy, or other visits with health care providers. Certain vaccines are recommended based on a person’s age, occupation, or health conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, or heart disease).

Vaccination is important because it not only protects the person receiving the vaccine; it helps prevent the spread of disease, especially to those who are most vulnerable to serious complications. These include infants and young children, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions and weakened immune systems.

All adults, including pregnant women, should get the influenza (flu) vaccine each year to protect against seasonal flu. Every adult should have one dose of Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis or whooping cough) if they did not get Tdap as a teen, and then get the Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster vaccine every 10 years. Pregnant women should receive a Tdap vaccine each time they are pregnant, preferably at 27 through 36 weeks of pregnancy.

Adults 60 years and older are recommended to receive the shingles vaccine, and adults 65 and older are recommended to receive one or more pneumococcal vaccines. Some adults younger than 65 years with certain high-risk conditions are also recommended to receive one or more pneumococcal vaccinations. Adults may need other vaccines (such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and HPV) depending on their age, occupation, travel, medical conditions, vaccinations they have already received, or other considerations.

For more information on vaccines, which diseases they protect against, and Alabama’s school immunization law, visit Use your “power to protect” by getting your family and yourself immunized.

Scott Harris, M.D.
Acting State Health Officer

(August 2017)

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Page last updated: January 2, 2018