Column: Doctors Depend on Public Health to Protect Kids

Mumps, norovirus, and other disease outbreaks around our state have caused students to miss an unprecedented number of school days this year. Doctors’ offices, walk-in clinics, and emergency rooms have been slammed with sick patients.

All of these disease outbreaks, coupled with a severe flu season, have strained our public health system’s ability to respond and have been hard on kids. As pediatricians, we know that sick kids can’t learn to their fullest potential. We also know the essential role Public Health Departments play tracking and working to prevent the spread of diseases like mumps.

From the Auburn to Spokane, more than 600 kids across the state have been diagnosed with mumps this school year. In March, the University of Washington reported 20 cases of mumps concentrated in the close quarters of its fraternities and sororities.

And those are just a couple of examples.

Diseases and public health emergencies don’t wait their turn – at one point this year, King County was dealing with 10 simultaneous outbreaks and a malfunctioning sewage treatment plant that sent millions of gallons of raw sewage into Puget Sound.

On top of all that, Western Washington experienced a severe flu season this winter. Hospitals in the Puget Sound area saw emergency room waits drag on for hours and many were in Code Purple – diverting patients to other facilities because they were overwhelmed. Public health worked with hospitals and providers to ensure that primary care offices could extend hours to relieve overcrowded emergency rooms.

We need a strong public health system to respond to the number and complexity of disease outbreaks and to help our health care system function optimally. Yet, years of recession era budget cuts have left our public health system underfunded and vulnerable.

Right now, our state and local health departments are working at capacity as they respond to mumps, measles, tuberculosis, syphilis, and other contagious diseases. Recently, our state’s largest local health department in King County, usually a resource for smaller health departments, had to call on the lone disease investigator in Kitsap County for help with disease tracking and response.

Spokane’s health department was so understaffed that it asked Idaho’s Panhandle Health District for help addressing the mumps outbreak in Spokane Public Schools.

Underfunding public health affects us all, but it has the most negative consequences on those with the least resources: children, rural and low-income communities, and communities of color.

As the Washington State Legislature works on a budget that funds K-12 and higher education, it is critical that they provide new funding to help our state’s beleaguered public health system fight contagious diseases. Investments in public health are very cost-effective ways to decrease health care costs, by minimizing illnesses that require hospital care and by sharing information that makes care more efficient.

The recently released House budget puts an infusion of $40 million into our state’s struggling public health system to help it track, monitor, and respond to communicable disease outbreaks –resources that will allow it to focus on prevention, rather than just going from one response to another. Public health is a smart investment that will keep our kids healthy, which in turn will ensure they are learning in school.

Public health is an essential government service, and one that we too often take for granted. Recent disease outbreaks have shown just how fragile our state’s public health system has become. It’s time for the legislature to make a critical down payment in public health to help keep all of our kids healthy and safe.

Dr. Ben Danielson is a pediatrician and Medical Director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic in Seattle. He also serves on the King County Board of Health.

Dr. Tom Pendergrass is an emeritus professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. He also serves as vice-chair of the Washington State Board of Health.