Archived Messages

Messages from Acting State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

Discuss Your Prescriptions With Your Health Care Provider

More than 30,000 people died in the United States in 2015 from an opioid overdose. Ninety-one people die every day because of opioid misuse and abuse, including prescription medications and synthetic opioid overdoses. The number of overdose deaths in this country has quadrupled over the past 15 years.

More than 700 people in Alabama died from a drug overdose in 2015. Our state has the highest level of opioid prescriptions in the nation, with numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing 5.8 million prescriptions being written for opioids in Alabama in 2015. That equates to 121 prescriptions for every 100 people in the state. Opioids are effective in managing pain, but patients need to know about the risk of dependency and addiction from their use. The epidemic is everywhererural areas, the suburbs, and urban areas, affecting people in all walks of life. With the high number of deaths associated with opioids, we need to increase awareness that they can be habit forming and decrease the number of individuals who either overuse opioids, use them recreationally, or use someone else’s prescription.

Nearly half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid. An opioid overdose can occur if taken with other medications such as benzodiazepines, alcohol, or sleeping aids. Many people are not aware of which medications are opioids or the risks associated with taking them. Commonly prescribed opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, tramadol, fentanyl, hydromorphone, meperidine, methadone, and morphine. Misuse of prescription opioid pain relievers is a risk factor for heroin use. Among new heroin users, approximately three out of four report having misused prescription opioids before using heroin.

To ensure patients use prescription medications appropriately, the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends the following:

  • Follow the directions as explained on the label or by the pharmacist.
  • Be aware of potential interactions with other drugs, and inform your health care provider about all other prescriptions, over-the-counter medicines, and dietary or herbal supplements you are taking.
  • Never stop or change a dosing regimen without first discussing it with your health care provider.
  • Never use another person’s prescription, and never give your prescription medications to others.
  • Store prescription stimulants, sedatives, and opioids safely and out of children’s reach.
  • Properly discard unused or expired medications.

October is Talk About Prescriptions Month, and it is a great time to ask your health care provider about the potential risk of addiction—a major public health problem. For more information, visit alabamapublichealth.gov/pharmacy.

Scott Harris, M.D.
Acting State Health Officer

(October 2017)

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September is Childhood Cancer Awarenss Month

During September, Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, I encourage the public to be aware of this condition that so deeply affects families across our state and nation. Cancer remains the leading cause of death from disease among children past infancy. According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 10,270 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed among children from birth to 14 years, and about 1,190 children are expected to die from the disease in the United States in 2017.

According to the American Childhood Cancer Association, approximately 40,000 children are on active cancer treatment at any given time, and the average age of diagnosis is 6 years old, compared to 66 years for adults' cancer diagnoses. Cancer in children can be difficult to recognize because early symptoms are often like those caused by much more common illnesses or injuries. Children frequently become sick or have bumps or bruises that can mask the early signs of cancer.

Parents should have their child examined by a doctor if he or she has unusual signs or symptoms that do not go away, such as the following:

  • Unusual lump or swelling
  • Unexplained paleness and loss of energy
  • Bruising easily
  • Ongoing pain in one area of the body
  • Limping
  • Unexplained fever or illness
  • Frequent headaches—often with vomiting
  • Sudden eye or vision changes
  • Sudden unexplained weight loss

While most of these symptoms are far more likely to have causes other than cancer, such as an injury or an infection, parents should contact their doctor at once so that a diagnosis can be made and their child can be treated if needed. Thanks to advances, there are hundreds of thousands of childhood cancer survivors.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is a member of the Alabama Comprehensive Cancer Control Coalition. Its vision, mission, special programs, and information about joining the coalition are described on this website at www.alabamapublichealth.gov/cancercontrol. If you are interested in reducing the impact and burden of cancer on Alabama, please consider joining.

(September 2017)

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Protect Yourself and Others By Getting Immunized

National Immunization Awareness Month is an annual observance held in August to highlight the importance of vaccination for people of all ages, starting with infants. Getting vaccinated according to the recommended immunization schedule is one of the most important things parents can do to protect their children’s health and adults can do to protect their own health.

Diseases can quickly spread among groups of children who are not vaccinated. Whether it is a baby entering a childcare facility, a toddler going to preschool, a student returning to elementary, middle, or high school – or even a college freshman – parents should check their child’s vaccination records. All of these settings are prone to outbreaks of infectious diseases. Children can easily spread illnesses to one another due to poor hand washing, not covering their coughs, and other factors such as interacting in crowded environments.

Alabama law requires children of all ages to be up to date on their immunizations before attending school and childcare centers. Every child needs to be vaccinated against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis – also known as whooping cough -- measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. Parents must provide their child’s school or childcare center with an updated Certificate of Immunization showing the month, day, and year their child received each of these vaccines.

Immunizations do not stop with small children – preteens, adolescents, college-age students, and adults also need vaccines appropriate for their age groups. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the following four vaccines are needed to protect them against serious diseases:

  • Meningococcal conjugate vaccine to protect against meningitis and blood infections (septicemia).
  • HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine to protect against cancers caused by HPV.
  • Tdap vaccine to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough (pertussis).
  • Annual flu vaccine to protect against seasonal flu.

Vaccination is also recommended for adults. Even healthy adults can become seriously ill and pass diseases on to others. The CDC recommends that everyone have their vaccination needs assessed at their doctor’s office, pharmacy, or other visits with health care providers. Certain vaccines are recommended based on a person’s age, occupation, or health conditions (such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, or heart disease).

Vaccination is important because it not only protects the person receiving the vaccine; it helps prevent the spread of disease, especially to those who are most vulnerable to serious complications. These include infants and young children, the elderly, and those with chronic conditions and weakened immune systems.

All adults, including pregnant women, should get the influenza (flu) vaccine each year to protect against seasonal flu. Every adult should have one dose of Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis or whooping cough) if they did not get Tdap as a teen, and then get the Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster vaccine every 10 years. Pregnant women should receive a Tdap vaccine each time they are pregnant, preferably at 27 through 36 weeks of pregnancy.

Adults 60 years and older are recommended to receive the shingles vaccine, and adults 65 and older are recommended to receive one or more pneumococcal vaccines. Some adults younger than 65 years with certain high-risk conditions are also recommended to receive one or more pneumococcal vaccinations. Adults may need other vaccines (such as hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and HPV) depending on their age, occupation, travel, medical conditions, vaccinations they have already received, or other considerations.

For more information on vaccines, which diseases they protect against, and Alabama’s school immunization law, visit alabamapublichealth.gov/immunization. Use your “power to protect” by getting your family and yourself immunized.

Scott Harris, M.D.
Acting State Health Officer

(August 2017)

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Always Take Care to Protect Your Eyes

Did you know your skin is not the only part of your body in danger of being burned by the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays? Your eyes can be badly damaged as well if they are not properly protected.

According to eye care professionals, several eye problems have been linked to overexposure to the sun’s UV rays – including blurred vision, cataracts, retina damage, and macular degeneration. These diseases can take many years to develop, but each time a person is in the sun without eye protection, risks for these serious disorders increase.

Just like your skin, your eyes can be burned by the sun, even when it is cloudy and cold outside. Protecting your eyes can be easy and inexpensive. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of both UV-A and UV-B rays any time you are going to be outdoors during daylight hours. Make sure the lenses are perfectly matched in color and free of scratches or distortion. People of every age from babies to the elderly need to take eye care precautions whenever they are outdoors.

Do not look directly at the sun. There is one day this summer when looking at the sun is of particular concern. North America will experience a solar eclipse on August 21, 2017. Looking straight at the sun, even when it is partially covered by the moon, can cause serious eye damage or blindness.

To help maintain healthy vision overall, adults and children should have regular comprehensive eye examinations. Eye exams are an important part of finding eye diseases early and preserving your vision.

Other ways to protect your vision include the following:

  • Eat a healthy diet, including leafy greens such as spinach or kale, and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Know your family’s eye health history.
  • Quit smoking or never start.
  • Use protective eyewear to avoid injury.

There is a lot to see while you are having fun in the sun – so do it in a safe way. Protect yourself and your eyes.

Thomas M. Miller, M.D.
State Health Officer

(July 2017)

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Men: Don't Overlook Your Own Health; Make It A Priority

June is National Men’s Health Month, a month to promote early detection and treatment of disease among men and boys by encouraging them to seek regular medical advice and early detection and treatment for disease and injury. Regrettably, men’s health is often overlooked and their symptoms are often ignored.

Heart disease, cancer, and accidents are leading causes of death in Alabama men. Some diseases and conditions may not have symptoms, so getting regular checkups can help diagnose health issues before they become problems. Men should pay special attention to signs and symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, excessive thirst, and problems with urination. If you have these or other symptoms, be sure to see your doctor right away.

The following are some important ways for men to improve and maintain their health:

  • Quit using tobacco.
  • Avoid excessive drinking.
  • If you drink alcohol, have no more than two drinks per day.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • Increase physical activity.
  • Eat healthy food.
  • Tame stress.
  • Schedule regular checkups.
  • Keep track of your readings for blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol and follow your health care provider’s recommendations.
  • Get vaccinated.

Healthier men lead happier lives, so step up to the challenge. Be a positive role model for your family and community by making lifestyle changes that can help lower your risk. Always remember to make your health a top priority!

Thomas M. Miller, M.D.
State Health Officer

(June 2017)

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Food Service Inspections Help Protect the Public from Foodborne Illnesses

Improper food handling practices can lead to foodborne illnesses that affect many people and, regrettably, may even result in death. Preventing or minimizing foodborne-related illnesses is the reason local county health departments inspect establishments serving food. Regular unannounced inspections help make sure restaurants and other food service outlets are following safe food handling procedures.

The inspection and regulation of restaurants and other food service facilities in Alabama is the responsibility of the Alabama Department of Public Health environmental staff at the county health departments and the Division of Food, Milk, and Lodging of the Bureau of Environmental Services at the state level.

Environmental health inspectors check to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect food from contamination by food handlers, cross-contamination, and contamination from other sources in the establishment. Some examples include ensuring employees regularly wash their hands in a sink equipped with soap, hot water, and paper towels; utensils and surfaces that contact raw meat are not used to prepare ready-to-eat foods; and rodents and other pests are not present.

State law requires any facility selling food to have a current food service permit that is issued by the local county health department. Food service establishments are generally required to be inspected at least three times per year, depending on the type of food being prepared and the steps involved in the preparation. The average convenience store may be inspected once or twice per year, again depending on the type of food sold there.

Inspection reports and permits must be posted in conspicuous view within the establishment. The exact violations are indicated on the report. The overall inspection score determines the reinspection schedule and the use of enforcement actions:

  • A score of 85 to 100: Establishments are considered to be in satisfactory compliance and are inspected on routine schedule.
  • A score of 70 to 84: Establishments require a follow-up inspection within 60 days.
  • A score of 60 to 69: Establishments require follow-up and reinspection within 48 hours.
  • A score below 60: Establishments are closed immediately and until problems are corrected.

Some establishments must be closed at once as a result of the inspection. In recent months, food service establishments in Alabama have been ordered to close for a variety of reasons that include the following: lack of water, lack of hot water, inadequate refrigeration, sewage backups, presence of rodents, presence of insects, overhead leaks, extensive remodeling, and fire.

Categories of establishments inspected include camps, catering, child care, convenience stores, grocery stores, institutional food service, mobile food service, nursing homes, public and private school lunchrooms, restaurants, seasonal. To find a permitted establishment’s score in Alabama, enter a name, city, or select a county or establishment type from the drop down lists at Food Scores.

Thomas M. Miller, M.D.
State Health Officer

(May 2017)

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Page last updated: October 31, 2017