Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

Reduce Your Risk of Injury or Death from Lightning

The month of June is Lightning Safety Awareness Month, the peak time for one of the nation's deadliest weather phenomena. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), lightning typically receives less attention than other storm-related killers because it does not result in mass destruction or mass casualties. Over the past 30 years, however, the United States has averaged 51 lightning fatalities per year.

Only about 10 percent of people struck by lightning are killed. The other 90 percent must cope with varying degrees of discomfort and disability, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Most lightning victims each year are male. Lightning makes every single thunderstorm a potential killer, whether the storm produces a single bolt or 10,000 bolts.

No one can guarantee an individual or group absolute protection from lightning. However, knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce your risk of injury or death. The NWS advises everyone to have a lightning safety plan, check weather forecasts daily, and cancel or postpone outdoor activities if thunderstorms develop.

Most lightning victims are not struck during the worst of a thunderstorm but rather before or after the storm reaches its greatest intensity. This is because many people are unaware that lightning can strike as far as 25 miles away from its parent thunderstorm, much farther out from the area of rainfall within the storm. Therefore, if you can hear thunder, you are within striking distance. Seek safe shelter immediately. Remember this simple lightning safety rule promoted by the NWS: WHEN THUNDER ROARS, GO INDOORS...and stay there until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder. Do not wait for the rain to start before you decide to seek shelter, and do not leave shelter just because the rain has ended.

If you have outdoor plans, be prepared by familiarizing yourself with the latest weather forecast before heading out. Upon arriving on-site, determine where you will seek shelter in the event of a thunderstorm and how long it would take to reach that shelter. A sturdy, enclosed structure with plumbing and electrical wiring is safest. If one is not available, however, most enclosed metal vehicles are safe alternatives. Not all types of buildings or vehicles are safe during thunderstorms. Avoid buildings with exposed sides including beach shacks, metal sheds, picnic shelters/pavilions, carports, porches, and baseball dugouts. During your outdoor activities, keep an eye to the sky for developing thunderstorms.

While inside, follow these lightning safety guidelines from the NWS:

  • Do not use corded phones: Cordless or cell phones are safe so long as they are not being charged.
  • Stay away from windows and doors: Sitting on an open porch to watch a thunderstorm is also dangerous. Go to an interior room during a thunderstorm.
  • Do not touch electrical equipment or cords: Any device that uses electricity (computers, televisions, household appliances) is susceptible to a lightning strike. Electrical surges caused by lightning can damage electronics (even at some distance from the actual strike), and a typical surge protector will do little to protect the device (or the person using it) if lightning should strike. Consider unplugging certain appliances or electronics, but for your own safety do this before the storm arrives.
  • Avoid plumbing: Metal plumbing and the water inside are both very good conductors of electricity. Therefore, do not wash your hands or dishes, take a shower or bath, or do laundry during a thunderstorm.
  • Refrain from touching concrete surfaces: Lightning can travel through the metal wires or bars in concrete walls and flooring, such as in the basement or garage.
  • If inside a vehicle: Roll the windows up and avoid contact with any conducting paths leading to the outside of the vehicle (metal surfaces, ignition, portable electronic devices plugged in for charging).

Lightning is one of the most erratic and unpredictable characteristics of a thunderstorm but knowing and following proven lightning safety guidelines can greatly reduce your risk of injury or death from lightning strikes.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(June 2019)

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May is National Arthritis Awareness Month, Safe Physical Activity Encouraged

National Arthritis Awareness Month is a time to bring awareness to the increasing prevalence of arthritis and to encourage physical activity. Arthritis is the leading cause of disability among U.S. adults; 54 million people have it. Arthritis is common among those aged 65 years or older, but people of all ages can be affected. In fact, nearly two-thirds of people with arthritis are younger than 65.

According to the 2017 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 37 percent of women and 30 percent of men in Alabama reported they had ever been told by a doctor they had arthritis. Arthritis affects people in every age group, including children, and members of all racial and ethnic groups. Arthritis is also more prevalent among adults who are obese.

Although the word arthritis actually means joint inflammation, the term arthritis is used to describe more than 100 distinct rheumatic diseases and conditions that affect joints, the tissues that surround the joints, and other connective tissue. Types of arthritis include osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, gout, and lupus. The pattern, severity, and location of symptoms can vary depending on the specific form of the disease. Symptoms can develop gradually or suddenly.

Pain is a common symptom of arthritis. Arthritis limitations can include difficulties with moving and performing daily tasks, as well as social and work limitations. Certain rheumatic conditions can also involve the immune system and various internal organs of the body. Rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and some other forms can affect multiple organs and cause widespread symptoms.

Arthritis is a treatable disease, however, and early diagnosis and appropriate management are important to minimize pain and disability. For most adults with arthritis, physical activity can reduce pain and improve function, mobility, mood, and quality of life. Scientific studies have shown that participation in moderate-intensity, low-impact physical activity does not worsen symptoms or disease severity.

Walking is a great form of physical activity to help manage chronic diseases such as arthritis. Being physically active can also delay the onset of disability if someone has arthritis. Safe and effective physical activity programs can improve physical function and overall quality of life. For some people, a self-directed physical activity program or a community program such as the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program Living Well Alabama makes a big difference.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends the following five strategies to manage arthritis, reduce symptoms, and get relief:

  • Learn new self-management skills
  • Be active
  • Talk to your doctor
  • Manage your weight
  • Protect your joints

May is a good time for people with arthritis and those caring for them to learn more about the types of arthritis, ways to feel better, become more active, and enjoy life more. Arthritis information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is available at cdc.gov/arthritis.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(May 2019)

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Get Screened for Colorectal Cancer

Did you know that colorectal cancer is the most preventable, yet least prevented cancer?

Colorectal cancer can affect anyone, including you. It is the second leading cancer killer in Alabama. Research suggests that more than half of all cases could be prevented by finding and treating it early. Colon cancer is different because it is a slow growing disease that can take anywhere from 8 to 10 years to develop. Most often it starts as an abnormal growth, called a polyp, on the inside walls of the colon or rectum, but can spread to other organs if left untreated. If a polyp is found early through screening, it can be removed, preventing cancer.

There are two types of colon cancer screenings, the stool based test (FIT take-home test) and a visual exam (colonoscopy). Although the FIT test is less invasive, it should be completed every year, while the colonoscopy is typically done every 10 years, but may be needed more frequently in high- risk individuals. It is important that you do not wait for symptoms to appear before you are screened, because cancer is harder to treat and cure if it is more advanced. Screening is recommended for anyone 50 or older and for African Americans beginning at age 45.

The FIT take-home test may be right for for you if you experience one or more of the following barriers to colonoscopy: time, transportation, lack of health insurance, lack of willingness to be screened by colonoscopy or flexible sigmoidoscopy, and limited availability of doctors and testing facilities. The FIT test detects hidden blood only in the lower bowel. This test reacts to part of the human hemoglobin protein found in red blood cells and has very few false positives, resulting in fewer unnecessary colonoscopies.

The FIT is an easy way to be tested for colorectal cancer because:

  • You can do it privately at home;
  • You do not need to change eating habits or medications;
  • You do not have liquids to drink;
  • You do not need to take time off from work; and
  • You can mail it back to the doctor in a few days.

If test results are positive, a colonoscopy is performed using a scope to check the entire colon for abnormalities like polyps or cancer.

If you have an increased risk of getting colorectal cancer, you should talk to your doctor about when to begin screening, which test is right for you, and how often to be tested. The risks for colorectal cancer include:

  • Older age
  • Personal/family history of polyps or colon cancer
  • Personal history of inflammatory bowel disease (ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease)
  • Inherited syndrome (Lynch Syndrome)
  • African American
  • Type 2 diabetes

Some studies suggest that the risks of developing colorectal cancer can be reduced by increasing physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, avoiding tobacco, and limiting alcohol consumption. However, screening is always the best prevention, because colon cancer can be cured when found and treated early.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(April 2019)

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World TB Day 2019: It's TIME to Eliminate Tuberculosis (TB)

“It’s TIME” is the theme the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) selected for World TB Day 2019. TB is an infectious bacterial disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which most commonly affects the lungs. It is transmitted from person to person via droplets from the throat and lungs of people with the disease.

World TB Day, annually held on March 24, is a day to educate the public about the impact of TB around the world. It marks the day in 1882 when Dr. Robert Koch detected the cause of the disease, the TB bacillus. This was a first step toward diagnosing and curing TB. World TB Day can be traced back to 1982, when the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease launched World TB Day on March 24 that year, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Dr. Koch’s discovery.

We are very pleased to report that in 2018 Alabama had the lowest number of TB cases in the state since reporting began in the 1930s---91 cases. Even so, TB remains a life-threatening problem, and much work is needed to eliminate this devastating disease. Anyone can get TB, but thanks to public health TB control programs, essential services are provided to prevent, detect, and treat it.

The Alabama Department of Public Health joins the CDC and other partners in advocating for its goals, which are as follows:

It’s time to test and treat latent TB infection.

Up to 13 million people in the United States have latent TB infection, and without treatment, they are at risk for developing TB disease in the future. We must continue to find and treat cases of active TB disease and also test and treat latent TB infection to prevent progression to disease.

It’s time we strengthen TB education and awareness among health care providers.

Treatment of latent TB infection is essential to controlling and eliminating TB in the United States. Our public health system and private providers play a crucial role in this effort.

It’s time to speak up.

On September 26, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly held the first-ever high level meeting on ending TB globally. CDC is committed to increasing efforts to test and treat persons with latent TB infection to prevent TB disease.

It’s time to end stigma.

Stigma associated with TB disease may also place certain populations at higher risk. Stigma may keep people from seeking medical care or follow-up care for TB.

TB services are provided to all people in Alabama, regardless of their ability to pay. For more information about TB, visit alabamapublichealth.gov/tb/ or call (334) 206-5330.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(March 2019)

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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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Page last updated: July 3, 2019