By Catherine Heigel
The average South Carolinian probably isn’t aware of the time and expertise that goes into developing a quality public health system that guards against a potential flu outbreak, tests fish to determine if they are safe to eat, educates citizens amid concerns about the Zika virus and provides vaccinations to children to protect them and future generations from preventable diseases.
They likely aren’t aware of what goes into making sure that infants get proper food and nutrition, citizens are educated on sexually transmitted diseases and people of all ages receive critical health information aimed at helping reduce obesity and tobacco use. They might not know what goes into monitoring and treating chronic diseases or tuberculosis.
But while they might not fully understand what it takes to build effective programs to address those issues, citizens most certainly understand that if someone isn’t doing that vital work — and much more — our overall public health and quality of life will decline.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is the agency charged with that big task. DHEC employs many professionals and experts whose job it is to understand how all these things work together to impact communities. More importantly, they possess the skills necessary to help develop a public health system capable of preventing and responding to the various emergencies and outbreaks that sometimes arise.
DHEC oversees many efforts to reverse negative public health trends. We’re seeing improvement. For example, infant mortality in South Carolina has decreased by over 30 percent from 2005-2014. In the area of youth smoking, an analysis of the agency’s 2015 South Carolina Youth Tobacco Survey shows that between 2013 and 2015, cigarette use among high school students has continued to fall below record levels, from 15.4 percent to 11.9 percent.
With locations in all 46 counties around the state, DHEC is accessible to all residents who make numerous clinic visits each year, whether for TB therapy or a flu vaccine. Three programs in particular comprise the vast majority of visits to our clinics: the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program, Preventive Health (family planning services and STD testing/treatment) and Immunization.
During the 2014-15 fiscal year, we had 831,674 client visits to those programs:
- 596,662 WIC visits
- 177,400 Preventive Health visits
- 57,612 Immunization visits
Although we work year-round to educate and inform citizens about a wide range of public health issues, this week gives us an opportunity to highlight the impact public health programs and services have on protecting and improving the well-being of all South Carolinians. South Carolina is joining communities around the country this week in recognition of National Public Health Week, which runs April 4-10.
Day in and day out, DHEC works to help communities, families and individuals access information and resources to facilitate personal wellness and empower healthy choices throughout life. We are dedicated to keeping our air, water and food safe. We also work tirelessly to prevent health emergencies. But emergencies do arise at times, and DHEC will be there to respond to such challenges.
These days, DHEC is closely monitoring the Zika virus, although there has not been a confirmed case found in South Carolina. The public is understandably concerned about the disease following an outbreak in South America and advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention telling pregnant women to refrain from traveling to areas where the virus is common.
It is likely that Zika will, at some point, be detected in South Carolina. As it does in the case of other mosquito-borne diseases, DHEC is working to detect the presence of Zika in South Carolina and is regularly providing information and education to health care providers, local mosquito-control programs and the general public. DHEC’s public health staff is seeking to detect the virus as early as possible in the event it appears in mosquito populations or in travelers who visited areas where the virus is active.
Whether faced with the daily task of helping citizens stay well or working to prevent or respond to a public health emergency, DHEC is committed to maintaining a strong public health system that keeps our citizens healthy and productive and our communities prosperous and vibrant.
During National Public Health Week, we have been hosting open houses in each of our four regions to celebrate the impact of public health and strengthen our connections to the communities we serve. The forums give citizens — from the Midlands to the Pee Dee to the Lowcountry to the Upstate — the opportunity to come in and learn more about our public health system and how we are actively fostering healthy people living in healthy communities in our great state.
Catherine Heigel is the Director of the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. A South Carolina native, Heigel holds more than 20 years of combined legal, regulatory and executive management experience.