Md. cancer death rates move Schaefer to seek analyses, recommendations

December 07, 1990|By Mary Knudson | Mary Knudson,Sun Staff Correspondent

ANNAPOLIS -- Gov. William Donald Schaefer has given the state health and environment secretaries 30 days to draw up recommendations for reducing cancer death rates in Maryland that topped those of any other state this year.

Specifically, the governor said he asked the officials to report back to him on cancer-prevention programs in Baltimore and in Allegany County, to examine what the causes of the high rates may be, and to make recommendations for lowering the cancer death rates.

Baltimore leads the state in cancer deaths and Allegany County has high death rates in several types of cancer, according to the latest five years of statistics available, 1983 to 1987.

In an interview this week, Mr. Schaefer said he also would ask his Cabinet members to include in their review Somerset County, which has the second-highest overall cancer death rate in the state. Mr. Schaefer said he was responding to a recent article in The Sun describing Maryland's first-place standing in cancer deaths.

Maryland's cancer problems are diverse and widespread. National Cancer Institute statistics compiled for The Sun, based on cancer deaths in all states during 1983-1987, show that Maryland ranks in the top six states for all the major cancers -- lung, breast, colon and prostate -- and is in the top four for several head and neck cancers, liver cancer, bladder cancer and multiple myeloma, or cancer of blood plasma cells.

Maryland moved into first place among the states this year, and the institute's statistics show that Maryland will retain that position next year.

"I'm not very pleased with it," Mr. Schaefer said he told Adele A. Wilzack, the state health secretary.

State health department statistics compiled for The Sun show that Maryland's top ranking is driven by high rates in Baltimore, on the Eastern Shore, in Anne Arundel and Charles counties and in Western Maryland.

Robert Perciasepe, the newly designated secretary of the Department of the Environment, said yesterday that he and Secretary Wilzack will meet with their staffs next week to discuss the cancer problem. Staff members from the two agencies had already met this week over the issue, he said.

But Maryland health and environment officials lack some basic tools for understanding the state's cancer problem.

The Environment Department is responsible for developing and maintaining a statewide cancer registry and investigating causes cancer. The registry, contracted out to the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is supposed to gather information on all new Maryland cancer cases and keep the record up-to-date. Such a registry can supply information to help state health officials identify specific problems and causes.

But Maryland's registry, which was begun eight years ago, has been hampered by the lack of a state law requiring mandatory reporting by all hospitals and laboratories, and some hospitals still have not reported any cases.

Mr. Perciasepe said he is "looking very hard" at whether to push for a bill in the next legislative session to make such reporting mandatory. States such as Delaware that do have effective, completed registries normally have mandatory reporting laws.

"I think only seven hospitals in the state are not participating," Mr. Perciasepe said. "We're going to get that full participation this year [even] if I have to personally visit these hospitals."

The state health department is concerned with developing cancer-prevention programs. Under a federal grant obtained last year, the department created a Maryland Cancer Consortium that includes state and local health officials, directors of the Johns Hopkins and University of Maryland cancer centers and other community cancer specialists. The group has three goals: detecting cervical and breast cancer earlier and stopping cigarette smoking, which is the leading cause of lung cancer and a cause of several other cancers as well.

The consortium had planned to make some recommendations in February, said Mike Golden, health department spokesman. "Now that it's evident that the governor is concerned, we've stepped up the process," he said.

Mr. Perciasepe said the two state agencies may consider forming a standing cancer committee representing both agencies.

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