A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Like firefighters and police officers, health department staffers are first responders, too

Dr. Lynne Saddler
KyForward columnist

Marion Kainer, an epidemiologist with the Tennessee Department of Health, got an email from a colleague at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. The Vanderbilt doctor was reporting a suspicious case of fungal meningitis in a patient who had received steroid injections.

You probably know the rest of the story: nationwide investigation launched, recall of thousands of doses of the steroid, investigations by the Food and Drug Administration; and through mid-December, more than 600 people ill and 14 dead across the United Sates.

Time and again, I tell the staff at the Health Department that they are everyday heroes. While the meningitis outbreak is unusual, I don’t think many would argue that Kainer’s actions in Tennessee were heroic. Her diligence in following the report all the way through led to a speedy recall of medication in Tennessee and notification of health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—who were able, through their own heroic work, to start working on the problem on a national scale.

We often forget that employees of our health departments are first responders to emergencies, too. Kainer and 170 others at the core of the meningitis investigation worked around the clock, some even camping out in their offices.

Paul Jarris, the executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said it well: “People expect the fire department and the police department to be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. What they don’t realize is that their health department is also there 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Jarris told USA Today recently.

But our ability to respond is tied to resources available to us. Funding for public health programs is crucial but is threatened by round after round of budget cuts. In Northern Kentucky, we’ve already had to reduce our budget by 3 percent in 2011-2012 and 6 percent in 2012-2013. Further budget cuts will only jeopardize our ability to respond.

Next time, if the report of the suspicious illness is in a Northern Kentucky resident, we want to be sure we have experts on staff who know what to do and have the resources we need to carry out their recommendations. I am confident that the people and systems in place now at the health department would be able to rise up to the heroic level seen in Tennessee this fall. Let’s make sure it stays that way.

Lynne Sadler, MD, MPH, is the district director of health for the Northern Kentucky Health Department in Edgewood.

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