WESTPORT, Sep 07 (Reuters Health) - Chronic disease ranks as the No. 1 cause of death in the US today, yet the nation's public health professionals are being denied the most basic tools to prevent life-threatening and disabling health problems, a blue-ribbon commission charged in a report issued on Wednesday.
To reduce the human and financial toll of chronic diseases, such as asthma, birth defects, cancers, and neurological disease, communities need to know when and where disease is striking and what environmental factors may be causing or contributing to the problem, the commission said.
More than half of the states lack ongoing tracking and monitoring of asthma, "even though it is a rapidly growing national epidemic," according to the report by the Pew Environmental Health Commission at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland. Most states, it said, do not track autism and mental retardation despite an estimated 50% surge in these developmental disabilities in the last decade and evidence of environmental links.
Furthermore, the report shows that less than half of the population is covered by birth defect registries, although birth defects are a leading cause of infant mortality. Only four states — Arizona, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and South Dakota — track autoimmune disease, such as lupus.
"This is Public Health 101, and as a nation we are flunking," Louis Stokes, a former member of Congress who serves on the commission, said in a statement released on Wednesday.
The commission called on Congress to establish a nationwide health tracking network to fill the information gap at an estimated cost of $275 million annually. That is less than 0.1% of the $325 billion annual cost of chronic disease in the US measured by healthcare expenditures and lost productivity, it said.
Former US Senator and Connecticut Governor Lowell Weicker, Jr., the panel's chairman, added that the issue should command the attention of every presidential and congressional candidate.
"We responded quickly to the threat of West Nile virus, tracking and monitoring every report of infected birds and people," he noted, "but 20 years into the asthma epidemic this country is still unable to track where and when attacks occur and what environmental links may trigger them."
The network that the commission has proposed would include a number of components, such as a nationwide baseline tracking of priority diseases, monitoring of immediate health crises, such as heavy metal and pesticide poisonings, and state pilot programs to keep tabs on regional environmental health concerns.
According to Dr. Neil Schlackman, Aetna US Healthcare's senior corporate
medical director and a commission member, such a program will refocus the
nation's attention and resources on the prevention of diseases that cause
the most suffering and death.