When it comes to communicable disease and public health departments, it is not always easy to connect the dots. What happens behind the scenes is more important to protecting your health than you may realize.
It is common to think of the health department when it comes to immunizations, but preventing disease is more than giving shots. Montana law requires labs and providers to report certain communicable diseases to local health departments. Depending on the disease the county health department is required to follow-up (i.e. provider or patient interviews, post exposure vaccination or partner contact).The county then filters these numbers to the state, who combine statewide numbers and send the information on to the Center for Disease Control (CDC.) This collective information gives us a broader picture of what is happening across the country, and enables health care providers to put precautions in place to minimize the risk of larger populations contracting a communicable disease. For example, if flu activity is high, nursing homes and hospitals may limit the number of visitors, require people to wear masks and post signs to increase awareness of flu transmission.
The reasons for reporting specific diseases are specific and varied.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs)such as chlamydia and gonorrhea are reported to health departments to ensure the infected person is treated, and to work anonymously to contact partners who should also be tested, and if need be, treated.
Monitoring gastrointestinal illnesses allows us to make sure the infected person is not working with food until the illness is no longer transmissible. It is also important to make sure there is not a common source making people sick.
Diseases such as anthrax and tularemia can be agents of biological warfare, making it extremely important to know about these cases.
Some diseases, such as malaria and yellow fever are not indigenous to Montana, but by following up on these diseases, we can learn which countries travelers are at risk of becoming infected and can help educate and prepare travelers better. For example, in the early days of Zika disease local health departments in Montana worked with the state to test retuned symptomatic travelers to see if they had Zika. This surveillance contributed to the knowledge about a new disease. Interviewing people who return with malaria is important because we can determine where they traveled, if they took prophylaxis, what type of malaria did they get and make organism if still susceptible to medication.
For more information, National Public Health Week; Communicable Disease.