Key health data for city show improvement

Trends include decline in teen birth rate

May 31, 2000|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

Rates of teen births, infant mortality and sexually transmitted diseases are dropping in Baltimore as the city continues an upswing in key health statistics.

The improvements stem from medical discoveries, social trends, and public and private initiatives. The new numbers, released yesterday by the city health commissioner, Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, continue several years of progress.

"On most health indicators, we've made significant improvements," Beilenson said. "It's kind of simultaneous, a lot of public health efforts, medical advances and individual lifestyle changes that all together have made a difference."

Scientific advances have helped save more babies, pushing the infant mortality rate down by about 14 percent over the past several years, he noted.

Increased staffing at city clinics and education of physicians slowed the syphilis epidemic that peaked in 1997.

The number of cases dropped by 65 percent, from 667 in 1997 to 234 last year.

Other efforts, such as the city's needle exchange program, helped stem the spread of HIV infection among the city's injection drug users. The rate dropped 30 percent from 1994 to 1998.

Beilenson thinks the increased availability of condoms and peer counseling on abstinence have contributed to the decline in teen births. In addition, gonorrhea cases dropped by 45 percent from 1992 to last year.

The city still has many chronic public health problems. In 1997, nearly a fifth of the residents were at or below the poverty level, and about 10 percent were unemployed. As many as 59,000 people are addicted to drugs. Nearly 14 percent of children are born at low weight. Rates of cancer and heart disease are high.

Beilenson is worried that after a major push a few years ago to increase immunization rates, that rate might be slipping. Among preschoolers in the past year, the number of children immunized dropped from about 84 percent to 80 percent. Federal money has been cut for work the city health department does, such as tracking down children who haven't received immunizations, keeping a registry and holding immunization clinics.

In infectious diseases, the city posted mixed results. Last year, tuberculosis cases reached a low for the third consecutive year, and over the past several years, AIDS cases have dropped by 46 percent.

Hepatitis C, a virus that can cause liver failure, is spreading quickly among the city's drug addicts. Few physicians test for it.

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