The Department of Health presented Thursday on recent infectious disease outbreaks it has battled using programs under the state’s new Public Health Response Account.
Kristen Ehresmann, director of the department’s infectious disease division, told the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee about an unprecedented combination of outbreaks last year that affected communities of color. There was measles among Somalis, drug-resistant tuberculosis among elderly Hmong, and syphilis among Native Americans.
The department developed culture-specific awareness projects and tracked down infected people for screening.
The type of tuberculosis that struck the Hmong elder community was multi-drug resistant meaning it was more difficult to treat. Costs per patient average around $134,000, whereas regular tuberculosis is about $17,000. As part of its fight against the outbreak, department personnel went to all 17 Hmong senior centers in the Twin Cities, and convinced all but one of them to undergo trainings for both staff and senior attendees.
In the case of the syphilis outbreak, the department created a pilot screening project in county jails in north-central Minnesota. Funding for the project extends through June of this year, and department officials are interested in continuing it if the agency has the money, Ehresmann said.
The measles outbreak occurred largely because of low measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rates among the Somali community, she said. Vaccination rates among Somalis spiked during the outbreak itself, but have since gone back down to near baseline levels —leaving the state vulnerable for a potential round two.
“We have a long way to go before we reach vaccination nirvana, or herd immunity,” Ehresmann said.
Rep. Laurie Halverson (DFL-Eagan) asked what it took to get community members opposed to vaccination to change their minds.
Ehresmann said Somali culture has a strong oral tradition, so department officials paired health workers with religious leaders so Somalis could get oral communication about the importance of getting vaccinated. They also directly confronted the community’s fears about autism using facts, she said.
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