Health survey: Walla Walla County middle of pack

Annual rankings place Walla Walla County at No. 17 out of 39 in the state.

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The second annual County Health Rankings study was released Tuesday by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The study determines how healthy every county in the United States is by looking at factors such as the numbers of preventable hospital stays and violent crime rates. The report emphasizes the components of health that, if improved, can help make communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play. Particularly when community leaders use the information for change.

For Walla Walla County, there is some new information and some old news in the 2011 report, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department.

For starters, this county is ranked 17 out of 39 in the state -- San Juan County is No. 1, while Ferry County is last. Walla Walla County's health ranking is influenced by Columbia County, the study found.

And rural counties overall ranked disproportionately lower than urban and suburban counties, which holds true in Washington state.

That finding mirrors the economic picture in Walla Walla County, Crowder pointed out. "Public health would be greatly improved with better income."

Some of the highlights for the Walla Walla area include:

Walla Walla County has great access to clinical care by providers like family practice-, internal medicine- and pediatrics, and obstetrics/gynecology physicians. Having sufficient availability of primary care providers is essential so people can get preventive and primary care, and when needed, referrals to appropriate specialty care.

The teen birth rate here is high at 39 girls, ages 15-19, out of every 1,000 becoming pregnant. Teen pregnancy is associated with poor prenatal care and pre-term delivery. Pregnant teens are more likely than older women to receive late or no prenatal care, have gestational hypertension and anemia and have poor weight gain.

They are also more likely to have a pre-term delivery and low birth weight, increasing the risk of child developmental delay, illness, and mortality.

Some of Walla Walla County's teen birth rate is a result of cultural customs and some shows a lack of an effective sexuality-education curriculum, Crowder explained. "We need to work on a different program for young men and young women. What we're doing ain't working."

The number of days particulates in the air constitutes an unhealthy state is nine. The state average is six and zero is the national benchmark. "It's a matter of where we sit," Crowder said. "We have dust blowing out of Columbia Basin ... it's what makes us a fertile valley."

Diabetic and mammography screenings rates are reasonable, meeting or exceeding the state's numbers and close to the national benchmark.

The graduation rate for area high school students needs improvement, Crowder said. The study's writers said 80 percent of ninth-graders in Walla Walla County will graduate in four years, which is higher than the state average of 75 percent but under the national benchmark of 92 percent.

Walla Walla County, with its population of 58,149, struggles with providing enough mental health care for residents. Washington state averages one mental health professional per 2,513 people. Here, with 18 providers as of 2008, it's one per 3,231 people, data showed. Some counties, however, fare worse -- Franklin County, for example, has no providers for more than 73,000 residents. Columbia County has one mental health professional for nearly 4,000 residents, according to the study.

"It's just a tough nut to crack because of the economics and the supply of mental-health providers here on the two-lane road to Pomeroy," Crowder said.

For more information on the 2011 County Health Rankings, go to www.countyhealthrankings.org.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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