Flu activity down sharply in Shelby County

In contrast to trends elsewhere in the nation, the unusually harsh flu season this year appears to be easing its grip on the Memphis area, health officials say.The number of emergency-room visits for flu-like illnesses in Shelby County has fallen by more than half, from a peak of close to 1,500 during the week of Dec. 17-23 to a little over 600 last week, according to Health Department figures. Flu now accounts for around 5 percent of all emergency-room visits, about half the proportion from mid- to late-December.The number of laboratory-confirmed flu cases reported to the department also peaked during the week of Dec. 17-23 at 356. By the last week in January, the most recent period for which figures are available, the number of positive tests had fallen to 90. From December: Flu season off to an early and severe start in Memphis More: Here's what works to lessen flu misery More: Got the flu? Stay home! Get better. It's costing us billions At Le Bonheur Children's Hospital, where the emergency department received a record 403 patients one day in December, the number of positive flu tests peaked just before Christmas and has "gone down every week since," spokesman David Henson said.The relative lull locally runs counter to trends elsewhere in the U.S., where the worst flu season in nearly a decade shows no sign of letting up. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that flu activity increased during the week of Jan. 21-27, the most recent period for which figures are available, with hospitalization rates the highest the agency has ever seen.At least 53 children have died of flu this season, and the viral illness remains widespread in 48 states, according to CDC officials.Despite the limited effectiveness of flu shots this year, health officials still urge residents to get them. Flu activity is expected to remain high across the nation for the next several weeks, Continue Reading

Shelby County unveils strategy for opioid crisis response

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell presented a strategy Wednesday for a "united" response to the deadly opioid crisis, even as county commissioners overrode two of his vetoes in an ongoing power struggle over the county's lawsuit against Big Pharma.Flanked by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, Luttrell outlined a three-pronged response to a public health and safety emergency that has claimed more than 500 lives locally in the past four years. The county will continue reviewing its litigation options, will launch a public awareness campaign, and will have third-party health vendors monitor prescriptions to find any addiction patterns and root out the physicians responsible. ► More: Shelby County to launch opioid awareness campaign "This truly is a situation that is an all-hands-on-deck approach to a problem that is plaguing our community," Luttrell said.Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter, who will head the public awareness initiatives, said she envisions a minimum two-year education campaign aimed at building awareness of the issue and reframing addiction as a disease, not a crime.She said she'll also focus on building partnerships and marshaling human and financial resources to address the crisis. The county is already working with the University of Tennessee and with the state Health Department, she said."The work ahead is going to be critical," she said. ► Read more:  Opioid abuse in TennesseeDeputy Chief Administrative Officer Kim Denbow will head initiatives to educate and help county employees struggling with addiction, either personally or in their families, and County Attorney Kathryn Pascover will head the ongoing review of litigation options.The opioid crisis isn't limited to the rural areas of the county, Strickland added. Just last year, the Memphis Fire Department administered 2,447 doses of an opioid antidote to 2,119 patients ranging in age from 19 days to 99 years old."We know this is an urgent issue," Strickland said, Continue Reading

Teen births in Shelby County down by more than half since ’07

The number of Shelby County children born to teen mothers has declined by more than half during the past decade – a dramatic drop at least partly driven by a federal program facing possible budget cuts.During 2016, there were 1,110 babies born in the county to moms aged 10-19, the latest Tennessee Department of Health figures show. That's a reduction of 53 percent from the 2,352 kids born to local teens in 2007.The local decline mirrors state and national trends, with the teen birth rate across the U.S. down 51 percent over the past decade, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.It's not just births, but total pregnancies and abortions that are down sharply among teens. Across Tennessee, the rate at which teens got abortions fell 42 percent between 2011 and 2016.Teen pregnancy and motherhood can kindle a variety of health and social ills, preventing young women from finishing school and trapping them in poverty while depriving their children of security and resources. The Memphis area long has been plagued with high teen-birth rates. "I think it's so great to see those numbers drop. It's good for everybody," said Rebecca Terrell, executive director of Choices, a non-profit reproductive health clinic in Memphis. Several factors involvedLocal and state officials emphasize that a number of factors contributed to the reduction in unintended pregnancies and births among teens, including an apparent decline in sexual activity among young people.But one significant cause, they say, has been the broader availability of contraceptives, especially the highly effective implants and intrauterine devices that last three or more years. Access to contraceptives has been enhanced by the Affordable Care Act, which requires that insurance plans cover a range of birth-control options, and TennCare, the state's Medicaid program. Also, groups Continue Reading

Treating youth crime as a public health crisis

As a long-time resident of Memphis and Shelby County, I am deeply concerned about the conditions of our youth, especially those entrenched within the juvenile justice system.Yes, there are a significant number of youth involved in delinquent behavior, and in some cases, heinous crimes that threaten the public’s well-being. Yet, despite the growing challenges relating to juvenile crime and delinquency, these problems are often relegated to failed punitive approaches, with the true remedies overlooked or ignored.For too long the general public has stigmatized these children as "bad kids", attributing their behaviors solely to inept parenting and a blatant disregard for the law. Meanwhile, the root causes of these behaviors are ignored.Although, the need for public safety is inarguable, a shift in philosophy and approach is also required if we are to realize any meaningful improvements in juvenile crime and delinquency.  Comprehensive mental health programming is a great start.As both America’s juvenile justice and adult penal systems are distressed with mental health issues, more resources should be devoted to address these conditions.Unfortunately, most juvenile justice programs are structured as small replicas of adult penal institutions, so why should we expect anything different? Public health improves public safety In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education awarded nearly $25 million in mental health counseling funds to various school districts across the country. Educators understand the inseparable relationship between student health and academic outcomes.Applying the same argument, we need a similar philosophy when working with our juvenile offenders. As mental health issues often persist and go undetected for long periods of time, early interventions are very important.This is precisely why our Memphis and Shelby County juvenile justice system should shift to a public health approach.  Research indicates that mental health Continue Reading

Shelby County’s infant mortality rate rose in 2016, state figures show

A year after dropping to its lowest level on record, Shelby County's infant mortality rate rose to more familiar territory in the most recent state health data.During 2016, a total of 123 babies in the county died before their first birthdays, for a rate of 9.3 per 1,000 live births, according to statistics compiled by the Tennessee Department of Health. That rate is up 13 percent from the 8.2 per 1,000 reported for 2015, when 110 babies died.The increase erased most of the improvement that had allowed officials to hail the 2015 infant death rate as the lowest ever recorded in the county. The 2016 figure was closer to the rates of 9.6 and 9.2 reported for 2014 and 2013, respectively. But it's well below the rate of 13.0 in 2009."When we have increases like this, it's a reminder that this is an issue that we have to be ever-vigilant on," county Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said Thursday.Statewide, the infant mortality rate was 7.4 per 1,000 births, with 597 babies dying last year. For the nation, the rate was 5.9 in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Infant mortality has long been a high-profile scourge and public-health target in the Memphis area.In 2006, when 185 babies died in Memphis, only six cities in the U.S. — all with much larger populations — had more infant deaths. That also was the year that a series of articles in The Commercial Appeal helped spur the Health Department and community partners to forge a cooperative effort to attack the problem.The initiative led to interventions to help mothers who have a history of delivering premature babies, and it provided for earlier access to prenatal care in women in medically underserved neighborhoods. Health officials also worked to curb smoking among  prospective mothers and direct extra attention to at-risk pregnancies.Haushalter said prematurity Continue Reading

Shelby County Commission may appeal opioid-control ruling

The Shelby County Commission could appeal Tuesday's Chancery Court ruling giving Mayor Mark Luttrell control of an opioid lawsuit, commissioners said Wednesday.County Chancellor Jim Kyle ruled Tuesday that the charter gives the mayor, as the "sole contracting authority," the power over the county's litigation — including an opioid lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors filed by New York-based law firm Napoli Shkolnik at the direction of commission chairwoman Heidi Shafer.The administration sued Shafer in her professional and personal capacity, as well as the rest of the commission and the law firms involved in the commission's opioid lawsuit, claiming she and the commission had exceeded their authority under the charter.Shafer — joined by commissioners Terry Roland, Van Turner, Eddie Jones and Justin Ford — painted the ruling as a win Wednesday. Kyle gave control of the lawsuit to the administration, but also found that proceeding with the case was in the public's best interest, as commissioners have argued all along. Kyle ordered all work on the lawsuit stopped until the end of the year to give the administration time to take over. More: Shelby County Commission backs chairwoman in opioid lawsuit disputeBut overshadowing the commissioners' comments was the possibility the mayor will gut the lawsuit, limit its scope or join a potential state lawsuit that Shafer says may reduce the county's share of a settlement. Luttrell also declined to commit to authorizing reimbursement of Allan Wade, the attorney hired by the commission to defend its members in Chancery Court. Napoli hired former Memphis City Attorney Herman Morris."We're trying to push, with our authority — to continue to push — to make sure this lawsuit stays vital, that it stays active and that it doesn't get gutted down to nothing," Shafer said Wednesday.Asked about Luttrell's insinuated threat not to pay the Continue Reading

Tennessee, Shelby County look to sue as opioid costs mount

Tennessee and Shelby County could join a growing list of governments suing giant painkiller manufacturers for allegedly turning a blind eye to opioid abuse.State House Speaker Beth Harwell last week publicly asked Attorney General Herbert Slatery to consider suing drug companies, and Shelby County commissioners Terry Roland and Reginald Milton requested the same of county attorneys Wednesday.Overall, the state is one of the worst for opioid and prescription drug abuse. Nearly 72 percent of the state's 1,451 overdose deaths in 2015 involved opioids, resulting in significant legal, rehabilitation and incarceration costs, among others."What it's doing is stretching our resources," Roland said. "It hits us everywhere."In West Tennessee, the number of overdose deaths from alcohol, drugs or both has risen dramatically in just the past year, from 188 in 2015 to an estimated 266 in 2016, according to the West Tennessee Regional Forensics Center. And Shelby County Health Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Hart said the 2016 numbers could grow.Of those numbers, deaths related to heroin — a more commonly known opioid — rose 833 percent from nine cases in 2011 to 84 cases in 2014."It's probably going from an epidemic to a pandemic," Roland said.Roland said he's still awaiting estimates of the costs to the Health Department, Shelby County Sheriff's Office and the Regional Medical Center also known as Regional One.But some of the costs to the community are more subtle, Roland added — like the lasting effects on children with addicted parents. He said he's recently attended several funerals of addicts and knew the drugged couple shown unconscious in a viral video.Ohio and Mississippi have already sued pharmaceutical companies, and Roland said he's aware of two or three other states and counties who may file suits soon. Memphis is "studying the issue" and monitoring Ohio and Mississippi's cases, said city spokesman Continue Reading

The struggle for juvenile justice in Shelby County

The U.S. Department of Justice announced Friday that federal monitoring of Shelby County Juvenile Court will continue, despite letters from local officials asking that federal involvement end."It would be premature to terminate the entire agreement at this time," John M. Gore, acting assistant attorney general, wrote in a letter to Mayor Mark Luttrell, Sheriff Bill Oldham and Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael. "More work needs to be done."The department said the court had complied with 14 of the hundreds of subsections in the 2012 Memorandum of Agreement. Last April, the department said the court had complied with 42 other subsections.There are more than 300 subsections in the agreement, which addresses the court's failures to protect children from harm and provide their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection under the law.Notably, the Justice Department did not release the court from any of the subsections addressing equal protection issues for African-American youth.The Justice Department's notice comes about a week after local officials announced plans to establish a Youth Assessment and Resource Center at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.The center could completely transform the way juvenile justice is handled in Shelby County. It also raises more questions.Can a juvenile justice system provide mercy and justice? Protect the child and the public? Rescue, restore and rehabilitate when possible, and punish when necessary?This is the second of a two-part Sunday Viewpoint discussion on those challenges of juvenile justice in Shelby County.THIS SUNDAY: Juvenile justice advocates express their concerns about a juvenile justice assessment center and larger and ongoing issues involving Shelby County Juvenile Court.Bill Powell, who resigned in June as the county's agreement coordinator, addresses his hopes and concerns about the proposed center.Demetria D. Frank, a University of Memphis Law School professor Continue Reading

Can Shelby County provide justice and mercy for juvenile offenders?

The first juvenile courts, formed more than a century ago, were surrogate parents. The court's paternal mission was not to punish but to redirect and rehabilitate misguided youth.As the mission expanded and juvenile courts began to detain and even incarcerate youthful and sometimes violent offenders, concerns grew."There may be grounds for concern that the child receives the worst of both worlds," the U.S. Supreme Court said in Kent v. U.S. in 1966. "That he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children."That sort of sums up the monumental challenge facing Shelby County Juvenile Court more than half a century later.For the past five years, the local court has been operating under an "agreement" with the U.S. Department of Justice, which found that the court "failed to protect the constitutional rights of children," especially African-American children.Court and county officials have asked to be released from that agreement, but federal monitors were here earlier this month and are scheduled to return in December.Last week, meanwhile, local officials announced plans to establish a Youth Assessment and Resource Center at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center "to break the cycle of delinquency".The center could completely transform the way juvenile justice is handled -- or mishandled -- in Shelby County. The center, aimed primarily at kids who don't commit violent crimes, would have two major goals: "To divert as many youth as possible from entering or going deeper into the juvenile justice system." "To identify and provide services designed to help resolve underlying issues that may lead to delinquency," such as mental health problems, trauma, addiction, or family dysfunction.Can a juvenile justice system provide mercy and justice? Protect the child and the public? Rescue, restore and rehabilitate when possible, and punish when necessary?The Supreme Court acknowledged those Continue Reading

Four mumps cases reported in Shelby County

A year after dealing with an outbreak of measles, Shelby County health officials on Thursday reported there have been four cases of mumps in the Memphis area since March.As with measles, the mumps cases underscore the importance of residents getting immunized with vaccines, Health Department officials said.The local cases follow recent outbreaks across much of the nation. Since Jan. 1, at least 2,570 people in 42 states and the District of Columbia have been infected with mumps, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Neighboring Arkansas and Missouri were among the hardest-hit states.Given the other outbreaks, "we weren't overly surprised" with the local cases, Health Department Director Alisa Haushalter said. "It's a good opportunity  to remind people that mumps is still in our community and it's important to be adequately immunized."Mumps is a virus that is spread through droplets expelled when people cough or sneeze, but it's not nearly as contagious as measles, Haushalter said. The virus usually is contracted by people in small groups -- say, residents sharing a college dormitory. "We don't think you're going to be able to go to the grocery story and get mumps," she said.Patients often don't become ill until two or three weeks after exposure to the virus. They remain contagious for two to five days after the onset of the cheek or neck swelling commonly associated with the infection.Mumps usually doesn't result in severe illness, with common symptoms including fever, headaches, muscle aches and swollen and tender salivary glands. But it can cause deafness and such dangerous complications as inflammation of the brain and the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord, according to the CDC.The disease can be prevented through vaccination, especially the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine given to small children. Two doses of mumps vaccine are required for school attendance.Haushalter said local officials Continue Reading