Report shows bright health spots for state’s kids

By Michael Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

Mississippi’s children face serious health challenges, but a new report highlights some successes in efforts to give them healthier lives.
Mississippi Kids Count on Thursday released its 2009 data book detailing both the challenges and successes in four key areas of children’s health – infant mortality, oral health, mental health and obesity.
Among the bright spots:
n In 2008, infant mortality dropped to 9.9 deaths per 1,000 live births, only the second time in the last 10 years that it has dropped below 10. The national average is around 6.5.
“It’s still much higher than we would like it to be,” said Mississippi Kids County coordinator Linda Southward, a research professor at Mississippi State University Social Science Research Center. “But it’s moving in the right direction.”
n Mississippi schools are building a healthy environment by kicking junk food off campuses and increasing requirements for physical education. The Amory schools’ coordinated school health program was highlighted in the report.
n Mississippi kids have significant dental needs, but programs are trying to reach young children with preventive services.
n A federal demonstration project, MYPAC, is providing intensive 24/7 services to families in place of psychiatric hospitalization. Preliminary results show better outcomes and lower cost.
The data book was released in conjunction with a Thursday summit in Jackson, bringing together children’s advocates to share programs that work and foster comprehensive solutions.
Even in these tough economic times, it’s important to keep investing in children’s health, Kids Count advocates say.
“I think we have to start early and have more prevention,” said Kids Count Coordinator Linda Southward. “It’s the only way to make long-term, systemic gains.”
Efforts to improve children’s oral health face an overwhelming challenge. Only 48 pediatric dentists practice in the state of Mississippi.
“Pediatric dentists can’t treat all the children who need help,” said Tupelo pediatric dentist Richard Warriner.
Family and general dentists help carry the load, but the biggest barrier may be low Medicaid reimbursements, which limit the number of cases the dentists can take.
Raising reimbursement rates or allowing dentists to get a charitable deduction on the unreimbursed costs would allow more dentists to participate, Warriner said.
Many Mississippi communities also are missing a low-cost opportunity to improve kid’s oral health.
“If you fluoridated all public water systems … we would see a dropoff in the amount of decay,” Warriner said.
Only 10 counties, including Itawamba County, had reached the goal of reaching 75 percent or more of its population with fluoridated water, according to Kids Count. However, since 2004, 64 Mississippi public water systems with almost 285,000 people have implemented or will implement fluoridation programs.
Northeast Mississippi has a fairly robust community mental health system for children.
“On our end, I think we’re ahead of the game,” said Rita Berthay, director of Children and Youth Services for Region III Mental Health. With about 80 staff therapists and case managers, the center covers every school in seven counties.
Berthay said she’s encouraged by the initial results from the MYPAC program, which provides services to families in place of mental health hospitalization for children.
“It allows the families to receive much more intensive services,” Berthay said. “The outcomes show it’s more effective when it takes place in the community and in the home, where the problem occurs.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t gaps, especially for children whose families don’t have public assistance or private insurance.
“We see all children regardless of the ability to pay,” Berthay said. “We provide as much as we can, but we are limited.”

Contact Michaela Gibson Morris at (662) 1599 or michaela.morris@djournal.com.