Minnesota to join national health tracking network

Two University professors have served on the public health tracking advisory board.

Jessica Van Berkel

Starting next year Minnesotans will be able to monitor public health and environmental hazards in their county by consulting one website, filling what some experts say is a gap in public knowledge. The Minnesota Department of Health received a federal grant Thursday of $875,000 every year for the next five years. The grant will allow Minnesota to join 21 other states included on the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionâÄôs National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network. Incidences of respiratory disease, high blood lead level, cancer, low birth weight and water and air hazards are among the information that will be available on the website. The national effort to track public health began in 2006, and was implemented in 16 states. Minnesota is part of a second wave of the program, Johnson said. Environmental tracking has seen a âÄúnoticeable deficit in the past,âÄù Bruce Alexander, an associate professor in environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota, said. Alexander is one of two University professors who have served on the Minnesota Environmental Public Health Tracking SystemâÄôs advisory board, which was initiated by the Minnesota Legislature in 2007, and released its first report on January 15, 2009. The other, John Adgate , is also a professor in environmental health sciences. The goal of the Web site âÄúisnâÄôt to collect new data, but is to make it easier to identify existing data,âÄù Alexander said. The data collected will be monitored to find trends, and direct prevention efforts in public health, he said. The Minnesota Department of Health already provides information like cancer statistics by county, and the Minnesota Pollution Control AgencyâÄôs Web site has information about some environmental concerns available to the public âÄúpretty readily,âÄù said Deborah Swackhamer, co-director of the UniversityâÄôs Water Resources Center and a professor in environmental health sciences. Although a lot of the data already âÄúexists out there,âÄù it is spread across âÄúvarious agencies and various programs,âÄù Jean Johnson, an environmental epidemiologist, said. The Web site will put information together in one place, making it more accessible to the public, policy makers and researchers, Johnson said. However, the most recent public health data available is from 2007, and the website âÄúcan have a one to two year lag,âÄù Johnson said. Part of the struggle in providing up-to-date data is balancing the tracking of information with MinnesotansâÄô privacy concerns. Although Minnesota is a âÄúsocially progressiveâÄù state, many peopleâÄôs fear of giving out information about their private property keeps the state from being at the forefront of the tracking program, Swackhamer said. Although details of the Web site and funding are not finalized, Alexander said the data could be available at many different levels, including metro or non-metro, by county, zip code or city. Of the federal funding, âÄúa good portion will go to the IT piece,âÄù other funding will go to health educators and scientists analyzing the data, Johnson said. Although the creation of the Web site will be a âÄúlong, on-going process,âÄù it will ultimately provide a âÄúfoundation for making decisions in public health,âÄù Alexander said.