In Cleveland more people die each year of cancer than in Milwaukee and Chicago. If that's surprising it's just one of several startling comparisons found at a new website designed to inform you about health risks. Recently, a committee of health professionals released a mapping system on their website "Health-Track.org." This new data base allows easy access to information about cancer in your community just by clicking a mouse. But, as 90.3 Tarice Sims reports, some health officials aren't so sure this is information you need.
Tarice Sims- Often times, fighting a disease goes beyond giving a patient medicine. Doctors talk to their patients not only to diagnose and treat illnesses, but also to find out why the disease happened in the first place. Discovering where a disease strikes helps researchers determine possible environmental causes. Medical professionals have been pursuing ways to look at communities where certain diseases hit the hardest. Although this type of information is available on state health department websites, there hasn't been a network that would allow neighboring states to share information. That is until now. Jim O'Hara is the executive Director of Health Track. He and former Congressman Louis Stokes were on the committee that helped set up the network that maps cancer data.
Jim O'Hara- In 1998, when the centers for disease control and prevention took a look at the best information they had on asthma in this country for the previous 20-25 years, one of their main findings was that we didn't have good state level information about asthma in our country. And they called upon the policy makers to invest in that kind of tracking and monitoring.
TS- The Health Track organization launched a new mapping system last week. It compares and contrasts the rates of cancer deaths in cities, and counties across the United States. For example, the website reveals that the number of white females that die of breast cancer each year is around 31 per 100,000 in Cleveland. By comparison, in Minneapolis, Minnesota the rate is slightly lower at not quite 28 per 100,000. The system is based on the National Cancer Institute database and the resource information supplied by each state health department.
Dr. Greg Cooper is a professor of medicine at University Hospitals in Cleveland. He has tracked diseases as an epidemiologist for nearly a decade. After scanning the new Health Track mapping system he says the information is helpful, but he warns people that some of the numbers can be deceptive.
Greg Cooper- If it's a uncommon the numbers can sometimes be misleading, because if you're dealing with a very rare cancer let's say it occurs 1 in a million people and in your area the rate is 2 per million so well you have twice the risk of cancer but if you step back and look at the absolute numbers it's still exceedingly rare.
TS- Dr. Cooper says the numbers by themselves are not very helpful. The true value of the network lies in the ability to compare your neighborhood health risks with other areas. He says this system of comparing health data is valuable in taking action to make improvements within communities. By presenting this information to public officials it gives leverage to those fighting for money to study environmental causes of cancer in smaller regions. Dr. Cooper says this has been done with Leukemia.
GC- I believe that there are 1 or 2 counties in Ohio with these sorts of data where they found there was a much higher rate than expected rate of Leukemia and the public health officials were then able to get funds and investigate whether the were certain environmental toxins that were accounted for this risk.
TS- Dr. Cooper says that could create unnecessary fear in people who don't know all the facts about cancer. According to the Ohio Department of Health it's important to realize that environmental causes are not the only reasons people get cancer. Randy Hertzer is with the department.
Randy Hertzer- We know that probably 90-95% of cancers are linked to what we call lifestyle choices -- in other words, whether of not someone smokes, whether they drink, so it's important that people understand they have the ability to control they are going to be exposed to a great number of cancers simply by making healthier choices in their lives that. Environment does play as big a role as personal decision making when it comes to cancer in particular.
TS- Tracking abnormalities, like cancer clusters, or even other chronic diseases near polluted areas is important information especially for those who can do something about it on a larger scale. U.S. Senator Mike DeWine says he values health tracking systems. He says it better prepares him to formulate needed health initiatives for Ohio.
Mike DeWine- That type of information, instead of being used to make people frightened or afraid, I think it needs to be used to make local health authorities understand where they got a problem.
TS- Senator DeWine has also been inspired to act because of the outcry from Ohioans to look into causes of asthma in children. One of the Senators initiatives that was put in place for the year 2001 is a $30 million grant towards that goal. Health Track hopes to expand its mapping system in the near future by offering access to information on other chronic diseases, including asthma. In Cleveland, Tarice Sims, 90.3 FM.