Local News

Two reports: Highlands County residents aren't in good health

SEBRING - Highlands County, your health is slipping.

That was the message Wednesday from the Florida Department of Health in Highlands County.

Premature deaths are increasing, and so are the percentages of adult smoking and adult obesity, child poverty, social support and deaths by injuries.

Even worse, we're doing it to ourselves. We're not exercising enough, even though the county is chock full of free outdoor recreational activities.

A Community Health Planning Committee is collecting information now about what's out there, said Barbara Turner, an operations and management consultant - fishing holes, walking trails, for-profit gymnasiums - and they're producing a document that will tell county residents how to get off their couches and get out there.

There is lots of good news: the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases decreased from 329 in 2012, to 315 in 2013, to 284 in 2014, along with teen births, which dropped from 64 two years ago to 56. The state rate is 38 per 1,000.

"One of our employees works with teen panels," Turner said. "They go into the schools and provide education to high school and middle school ages."

Children are taught how to think about their futures, asked what they want from life, and encouraged to make good choices, Turner said.

Sex education isn't being taught in schools, "but we will talk to teens who come in and want a pregnancy test, or if they want short- or long-acting contraceptive methods. Short-term is birth control pills, long-acting is an IUD or something like that."

Highlands County ranks in the third quartile of Florida counties with women who were overweight or obese at the time of conception, women with first trimester prenatal care, and late or no prenatal care. Perhaps as a result, the county has a greater rate than the state of hospitalizations, neonatal, post-neonatal and infant deaths, said Florida Charts.

One of Highlands County's worst kept secrets: there are people per mental health providers in Florida, but 1,783 people per provider locally.

"We have recognized that we need more mental health access to provide treatment," Turner said. "We have a relationship with Tri-County Mental Health Services and Peace River Center, in our health department here in Sebring and in Lake Placid."

The Community Health Status profile report from Florida Charts was frank about problems: "The percentage of adults reporting good mental health declined from 2007 to 2010, and the number reporting poor mental health on 14 of the past 30 days increased. The death rate from suicide is higher than the state rate, and it is increasing."

Domestic violence rates are also increasing while the rest of the state is declining, the Florida Charts report said.

The school district refers more students to the Department of Juvenile Justice than the rest of the state, and more violent acts.

"The Highlands County School District had close to a 400 percent increase in the population of homeless children and families from 2010-11 to 2011-12," said the Community Health Improvement Plan of Highlands County, which was prepared by the Health Council of West Central Florida.

"Highlands County does not score well or compare well to the state or other Florida counties for several diseases, including chronic lower respiratory disease, asthma and diabetes," said the survey, which compared hospitalization rates.

Our drinking water is worse than the rest of the state, too. Only 61 percent of our drinking water is fluoridated.

The number of drinking water violations - a new category - was 14 percent, and that's greater than Florida's rate of four, said Tom Moran, an operations and management consultant.

That may not mean water from the three municipalities, Moran said. "There are a number of private water systems in the county."

High school graduation rates have decreased from 73 percent two years ago to 70 percent in the 2014 report.

"Literacy can affect health outcomes if they are not able to read labels," Moran said.

"It has been a progressive effort to validate results and focus on areas that need additional improvement to ensure quality service for our community," said Mary Kay Burns, the Highlands County administrator.

"It's going to take the whole community to be healthier," Turner said.