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Salina Technical College

Updating the Syphilis Outbreak

Karen Shade - February 8, 2016 4:48 pm


It has been 100+ days since a syphilis outbreak was made public.  The Saline County Commission, aka the Board of Health, has ignored my requests to review the outbreak.

So, I asked Jennifer VandeVelde, Director of Disease Control and Prevention at Kansas Department of Health and Environment.  She wrote “KDHE disease investigators were in charge of the investigation”; they have specialized training from KDHE and the Center for Disease Control (CDC).  The local “Health Department provided immediate care to MULTIPLE individuals” KDHE “investigators sent in for testing and treatment”.

The Kansas Health Alert Network did not reach all local health care providers as intended.  It also emerged that while area school districts’ health curriculum covers sexually transmitted infections as pathogens, and may not cover risky sexual behaviors.  So, when the media covered the outbreak, some individuals sought expensive health care in emergency rooms.

VandeVelde wrote that Saline County’s syphilis outbreak primarily involved heterosexuals, and some used methamphetamines.  Other data, at www.sshd.org, for the 2012/13 and 2015 Saline County Community Health Assessments show primarily younger Saline County residents get chlamydia and gonorrhea at higher rates than other state residents.

What surprised me most was this outbreak shows another way meth use is a public health concern.  The jail’s daily booking report often shows drug violations.  Drug Court provides an alternative to jailing meth users.  Once a week, Judge Jared Johnson devotes his lunch hour to monitoring individuals who agree to submit to frequent urine analyses, meetings and conditions monitored by Community Corrections officers.  It is filled beyond capacity.  It is successful.  And there are crying babies in Drug Court–meaning some women used meth prior, during or after their pregnancies.  Meth victimizes children.

Because Commissioners oversee the Health Department, Community Corrections, and certain aspects of the courts and jail, they could use their powers to address these public health and safety issue.  They’ve set up a committee to reduce the jail’s population but its by-laws intentionally limit its size; City and HD officials don’t attend.  Commissioners intentionally structure the HD so one individual serves as director, health educator and public health emergency preparedness coordinator; this leaves little room to address the public health aspects this outbreak highlighted.

There are things that can be done.  We can look for successful community strategies for reducing meth use.  The State could fund and expand Drug Court and other treatments.  School boards can strengthen health education curriculums.  Individuals who care about public health can run for County Commission.

Just don’t look to the current County Commissioners; they struggle to get along, for the relatively short time they meet each week.  They can’t seem to rise above pettiness, to address important concerns.  There is no “unity” in our community, coming from that Commission.  And we all are diminished.

City of Salina