Oregon Public Broadcasting

Cases Of Whooping Cough Spike Around Washington State

So far this year, health officials in Washington state have recorded more than 341 cases of whooping cough. According to the Washington Department of Health, last year at this time, there were 57 cases.

“At this point we’re about 500 percent increase in the number of pertussis cases this year over last year," said Dr. Scott Lindquist, Washington's epidemiologist for communicable diseases.

The greatest risk is to children younger than a year.

"You can actually die from pertussis when you’re an infant," Lindquist said.

He said his agency strongly recommends pregnant women get a booster of the pertussis vaccine.

While the outbreak is concerning, other years have been worse.

“This is certainly small in comparison to the large outbreak we had in the state in 2012," he said. "We had about 5,000 in 2012.”

The whooping cough outbreak started about a month ago in Walla Walla and Kitsap counties, according to health officials. Since then, the number of cases has grown. Washington’s Clark County is among the most affected.

State health officials said they’ve documented 46 cases there so far this year, though Clark County health officials said that number is even higher. At this time last year there were just 16 cases in the county.

This year, most are in adolescent children. That’s also true in the rest of the state.

Monica Czapla, the communicable disease program manager with the Clark County Health Department, said the increase in whooping cough cases is part of a natural cycle. But she said there are other factors at work.

“A lot of it has to do with declining vaccination rates," she said.

Over time, Czapla said, the vaccine becomes less effective. Most children start receiving a series of vaccines to immunize against whooping cough a few months after they're born.

“But what we’re seeing happening is that the immunity that’s provided by this vaccination series starts to wane over time so that you’re less protected as you get older, which might be why were seeing pertussis disease in sort of the high-school age, adult population," she said.

What Czapla means is that the immunization essentially wears off. By the time kids reach their late teens, she said, it’s time for another vaccine. But it’s not clear how many are getting it, in part because there isn’t a lot of data, she said.

So far this year in Oregon, the number of whooping cough cases is more in line with years past.

Dr. Paul Cieslak, the medical director for the Oregon Immunization Program, said the state’s documented more than 150 cases of whooping cough this year.

“There are some hot spots," he said. "We’ve had little mini-outbreaks in Deschutes County and in Benton County. But overall state wide we’re about average.”

Cieslak said he’s not sure why Clark County’s outbreak isn’t affecting Portland more.

“We have had some high years recently in the Portland area and maybe there’s a little bit more immunity right now, but it's hard to predict who’s going to see rises in cases and when," he said.

Like Washington, Oregon’s highest case count in recent history was in 2012, when state health officials documented more than 900 cases.

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Effort To Make Ore. Hospitals Post Prices Misses Legislative Deadline

An effort to make Oregon hospitals give consumers up-front prices, had a setback in Salem Tuesday.

Senate Bill 891 didn't meet Tuesday's deadline for all ongoing bills to clear committee.

Jesse O'Brien with the Oregon Public Interest Research Group said lobbying killed it.

"The health care industry's strong opposition to increased price transparency has dealt Oregon consumers a real set back," he said. "However, we are not giving up."The Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems was one of the groups opposed to the bill. Spokesman Philip Schmidt said the group supports another bill, which would require the state to set up a website showing the median price of hospital procedures. "Consumers would get a good ballpark estimate of what was being charged and paid at each hospital around the state, and be able to do comparison shopping frankly," said  Schmidt.

There's some concern about that bill because of its cost to the state budget. It's been referred to the Ways and Means Committee.

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Bill Would Make It Easier To Compare Health Plans

A bill that would make it easier to compare health insurance plans has made it out of an Oregon Senate committee.

Oregon's current health care experiment measures performance in many ways — like what percentage of health records are computerized or how many patients get a follow up visit after a hospital stay.

Such metrics it makes it easier to compare the quality of health plans, but they're only used by Oregon's Medicaid system.

Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland, says Senate Bill 440 would require everyone to use the same metrics.

"Different insurance companies have held providers accountable to different metrics," she said. "And for primary care providers, it's really tough when you have patients who are covered by multiple different types of insurance, to make sure that you're meeting the metrics from different insurance carriers and Medicaid at the same time."

Passage of the bill is far from assured. Proposed changes are expensive for insurance companies, hospitals and clinics.

A spokeswoman from Gov. Kate Brown's office says she will review it once it reaches her desk.

The bill now moves to the House.

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Lawmakers Vote On Bill To Make Birth Control Pills Available Without Doctor's Prescription

The Oregon House Health Care Committee will vote on a bill Friday that would change the types of services pharmacists are allowed to provide.

Among the changes, is an amendment proposed by Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, that would allow pharmacists to dispense birth control pills to adults over the age of 18 without a doctor’s prescription. If adopted, the bill would broaden pharmacists' clinical practice to promote disease prevention and patient wellness.

The bill would require women to take a self-screening test to check for their risk of side effects. It would also permit health insurers to cover the cost of oral contraceptives prescribed by a pharmacist.

Buehler told Think Out Loud that the bill is important for bringing women’s health into the 21st century.

"It’s clear from best practices and evidence out there that having improved access to oral birth control really improves women’s health and decreases unintended pregnancies by up to 25 percent," said Buehler.

The bill would uphold the state Pharmacy Board guidance paper that allows pharmacists to opt-out from dispensing birth control for ethical, moral or religious reasons.

California is the only other state in the country to have adopted a similar bill.

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VA Wait Times Slowly Improving In Northwest Clinics

Most of the wait times for patients at VA clinics around the Pacific Northwest fall below the national average, according to an analysis of data by the Associated Press.

Twelve of the 29 clinics analyzed in Oregon and Washington had appointments that didn’t meet the agency’s goal of seeing a patient within 30 days, according to the analysis of data by the AP.

From September 2014 to February 2015, the AP found that 2.78 percent of wait times at VA clinics around the country were delayed at least 31 days.

Regionally, the Salem VA  -- at 5.49 percent -- had the highest percentage of appointments that were delayed at least 31 days. The lowest was the La Grande VA Clinic with .05 percent of appointments over the VA’s goal, according to the AP.

A report last April from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found Portland VA clinics had some of the longest wait times in the country, something that’s since been improved, Portland VA official and veteran group both said.

According to the AP, 3.58 percent of the appointments at the Portland VA from September 2014 to February 2015 exceeded the agency’s 30 day goal.

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VA Wait Times Slowly Improving In Northwest Clinics

Most of the wait times for patients at VA clinics around the Pacific Northwest fall below the national average, according to an analysis of data by the Associated Press.

Twelve of the 29 clinics analyzed in Oregon and Washington had appointments that didn’t meet the agency’s goal of seeing a patient within 30 days, according to the analysis of data by the AP.

From September 2014 to February 2015, the AP found that 2.78 percent of wait times at VA clinics around the country were delayed at least 31 days.

Regionally, the Salem VA  -- at 5.49 percent -- had the highest percentage of appointments that were delayed at least 31 days. The lowest was the La Grande VA Clinic with .05 percent of appointments over the VA’s goal, according to the AP.

A report last April from the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General found Portland VA clinics had some of the longest wait times in the country, something that’s since been improved, Portland VA official and veteran group both said.

According to the AP, 3.58 percent of the appointments at the Portland VA from September 2014 to February 2015 exceeded the agency’s 30 day goal.

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Vancouver Hospital CEO Stepping Down

PeaceHealth Southwest CEO Sy Johnson said he’s leaving the Vancouver, Washington-based medical center later this month.

Johnson told OPB the decision to leave was his own.

“I have a large family — five young children — and I need to spend a little bit more time with them. So a lot of it is a family decision," he said. "Every organization has its life cycles and places in time. … This is a place and time for me to make this choice.”

Johnson became CEO of PeaceHealth Southwest in November 2013.

During his tenure, the hospital notified more than 930 former patients to get tested for Hepatitis C after a former hospital employee was found to have diverted drugs.

After a five-month investigation, no patients were found to have contracted the virus.

Johnson will be succeeded by Nancy Steiger. She is currently the CEO for PeaceHealth in Washington and Alaska.

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Effort To Increase Organ Donors Delayed By ODOT Concerns

A plan to increase the number of organ donors in Oregon is being delayed by Transportation Department concerns.

Three out of four Oregonians tick the box to become an organ donor when they get a driving license.

Now the organization responsible for matching organ donors with recipients wants to add a new box - a $3 donation for outreach to attract more minority and rural donors.

But Tom McCellan with the Oregon Department of Transportation told a state senate committee that could cost hundred of thousands of dollars in computer re-programming, "Our concerns really deal with that cost and maybe it's a policy question for you, whether state employees should be collecting money on behalf of non-profit organizations."

A number of senators expressed support for the $3 box. One suggested it could be added when ODOT gets its new computer system.

Another hearing on the bill is expected next week, when fiscal impact statements should be ready.

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Cities Think Walking To School Is Good For Health

Tigard and Milwaukie are the first cities in the Portland area to pass resolutions asking Metro to make it safer for kids to walk to school.

LeeAnne Fergason with For Every Kid estimates that walking to school could meet 60 percent of the average child's daily physical activity need. "One in four kids in Oregon is considered unhealthy and obese and at risk for related diseases," she said.

Metro spokesman, Jim Middaugh said the agency has funds for making streets safer around school, but it's a competitive process. "This is the beginning of several steps in an effort to pick the most important projects in the Portland Metropolitan area that will help all of us spend less time in traffic and more time with our friends and family," he said.

Some communities are also setting up what are called "Walking School Buses" and "Bike Trains," where kids meet up for their trip to school -- and benefit from the safety in numbers.

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Why There's More Concern For Farmworkers After Pesticide Cancer Study

Few people come into contact with farm chemicals the way agricultural workers do. That's why a new health report on a commonly used herbicide is raising special concerns about farmworkers and cancer.

For years, researchers have seen glyphosate as one of the least harmful herbicides. It doesn’t cause as many acute poisonings. But now the World Health Organization has said there’s “limited evidence” long-term exposure can cause non-Hodgkin lymphoma in people.

Chuck Benbrook studies glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, at Washington State University. He said it’s the most heavily applied herbicide in history.

“This comes as a really huge surprise. It’s going to have a chilling effect worldwide on the use of Roundup,” Benbrook said.

Benbrook said this new report could be bad news for farmworkers — especially people applying the herbicide by hand or from four-wheelers.

“The people doing those applications, unless they’re very careful and wear proper protective equipment, they’re getting significant exposures,” Benbrook said.

In the Northwest, the herbicide is used on crops like barley, garbanzo beans, and wheat. Roundup is most often used on genetically modified crops — like corn and soybeans — that Roundup doesn’t kill. These crops aren’t grown in the Northwest.

Many farmworker unions and clinics try to teach people how to reduce their exposure to pesticides.

Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Hillsboro, Oregon, west of Portland is one of those clinics. It recently expanded its pesticide safety education.

Spokeswoman Olivia MacKenzie said a team helps workers learn how to properly outfit themselves and how to take off clothing and protective gear — without dragging pesticide residue home. She says right now physicians treat things like rashes and asthma from pesticide exposure.

“We do expect that there will be long-term issues that some of these farmworkers who have a long duration of exposure will be experiencing,” MacKenzie said.

MacKenzie said the center is also training its physicians to educate and treat farmworkers with pesticide exposure.

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