While the Delta region of Mississippi has been on the cutting edge of advances in agricultural production, research, and technology adoption, it has another distinction that is not so enviable.
“We’re No. 1 in almost every category of health problems,” Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council, told Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan during her recent visit to Mississippi promoting the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” program.
Morgan says the region’s population ranks highest in the nation in heart disease — 33.6 percent higher than the national average. It is third highest in cancer incidence, 12 percent above the national average; ninth highest in strokes, 16 percent higher than the national average; and 7.3 percent higher than the national average in infant mortality.
Further adding to a dismal health picture, he says: “Obesity is a Delta epidemic, 71 percent above the national average. High blood pressure is 36 percent above the national average, and diabetes is 13.1 percent above the national average.”
Despite a large population with health issues, access to health care providers and education efforts to encourage healthier lifestyles have been continuing challenges.
“We aren’t able to tackle these problems the way it can be done in urban areas,” Morgan says. “The issues here are different, more complex.”
For one thing, he notes, efforts to attract new physicians to the area have been daunting. Even those doctors who agree to come more often than not don’t stay for long, opting instead to go where economic potential is greater.
A more workable solution, Morgan says, may hinge on a combination of nurse practitioners doing hands-on work with patients in collaboration with physicians via a telecommunications link.
“We believe much can be accomplished through this kind of arrangement, coupled with outreach programs to promote better nutrition and lifestyles.”
The Delta Health Alliance, formed in 2001, “is changing health care in the region,” he told Merrigan.
The organizationis a partnership between Delta State University, Mississippi State University, Mississippi Valley State University, the University of Mississippi Medical Center, and the Delta Council. The primary purpose of the Delta Health Alliance is to coordinate and provide oversight for community-based programs that address the region’s critical health care and wellness needs through increased access to health care, improving health education, and conducting health research. The latest findings from the fields of science, medicine, and public health are used to create its programs.
All of the initiatives are assessed regularly on the basis of objective statistical data that are produced and recorded as part of the projects. And the work is done through community partners, recognizing that long-lasting change only occurs from the bottom up.
Secretary Merrigan, who terms obesity and hunger “the nutrition paradox,” said innovative ways to improve nutrition, including access to locally-grown foods through farmer’s markets, can help to improve health as well as providing added income to farmers.