With a total population of about 33,300, Washington County accounts for only 2.5 percent of the population of Maine. Yet that population is the oldest and poorest in the state with the highest rates of teen and adult smoking, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Those are some of the “highlights” — if a litany of human disadvantages and ill health can be so termed — of a new report released by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The Community Health Status Report for Washington County, compiled from state and federal health data sources, comes in response to a national study released this spring that identified the Sunrise County as one of 179 counties where the life expectancy of American women is declining while elsewhere in the nation it’s on the rise.
According to the national report, the declining life expectancy among women in the affected counties is tied to higher rates of diabetes, emphysema, kidney failure and cancer. The counties also were notable for their high rates of unemployment and poverty as well as for the prevalence of racial minorities in the general population.
With about 3,370 members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point and Indian Township, Washington County boasts the most racially diverse population in Maine — a 6.2 percent racial minority versus the state average of 3.3 percent.
Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC, said Tuesday that the new report underscores the complexity of the health status problem in Washington County.
“I like to think of health status as just one of several threads in a blanket — along with education, economic development, infrastructure [such as transportation and access to the Internet], the built environment and the natural environment,” she said. “When you have one thing so out of line, you know it’s not in isolation. You can’t solve one without addressing the others.”
Mills said that at a meeting in Machias on Sept. 19, public officials, health care leaders and others from the community recognized the intertwined nature of the county’s problems and the need to address the issues comprehensively.
She said groups in the area are committed to improving economic development, educational attainment and infrastructure as well as the health of residents.
Mills said the Maine CDC already has helped the area garner nearly a million dollars in federal funding for improving access to primary care, prenatal care, and substance abuse treatment and prevention. The state also has agreed to provide public health specialists to the American Indian tribes in the area and will be hiring a third public health expert to serve as a liaison between the Maine CDC and the Down East region.
The survey also could prompt efforts to ensure eligible Washington County residents are enrolled in MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program, as well as a review of the quality of the health care services in the area, Mills said.
Mills said the Maine CDC will conduct regular surveys of regional health data in the future to monitor progress in improving public health.
The Maine CDC report, along with a summary of the highlights, is available at www.maine.gov/dhhs/boh/phdata/county_level_reports.htm.