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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont Second-Healthiest State, Despite Spike In Whooping Cough

Vermont was ranked second-healthiest state in the U.S. by America’s Health Rankings this year for the second year in a row. Hawaii was rated healthiest.

The report cited the state’s high high school graduation rate, low rate of children in poverty and the low rate of uninsured Vermonters as positive factors in the ranking, but noted challenges as well.

Notably, the high prevalence of unvaccinated children in Vermont landed the state near the bottom of the list on a few key measures.

Vermont ranked 37th of the 50 states in child immunization, with 66.9 percent of Vermont “children aged 19 to 35 months receiving recommended doses of DTaP, polio, MMR, Hib, hepatitis B, varicella, and PCV vaccines.”

The low rate of DTaP vaccines, which immunize children against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, led to a major spike in pertussis cases in the past year – an increase of more than 500 percent.

The disease, also known as whooping cough, struck 102.9 of every 100,000 Vermonters in 2014, according to the study, compared to just 15.1 per 100,000 last year. The 2014 rate was second-highest in the nation.

“We’re continually ranked among the healthiest states. But we also have significant public health challenges, such as the steady climb in obesity and too low childhood immunization rates,” said Acting Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan in a statement about the report.

Vermont has seen a steady climb in obesity since 1990, according to the report's data. The rate then was 10.7 percent of the population. Now, almost 25 percent of Vermont adults are obese.

The state also ranked low, despite improvements, in binge drinking.  The report said 17.1 percent of Vermont adults binge-drink, which is considered having more than four (for women) or five (for men) alcoholic drinks on one occasion in the 30 days prior to being surveyed. That represents an 11 percent decrease from last year’s 19.3 percent.

Despite an increased focus on drug-related issues in the state this year, Vermont had the 16th-lowest rate of drug deaths in the nation, according to a three-year average included in the report.

Update 3:03 p.m. Vermont state epidemiologist Patsy Kelso has raised questions about the data presented in the report. According to Health Department spokesman Robert Stirewalt, Kelso sent the following comment to America’s Health Rankings:

The Vermont pertussis incidence negatively impacts our state's ranking. Under the Overview it states "2014 ranks are based on 2011 data".

Vermont experienced a statewide pertussis epidemic from late 2011 through early 2013. Vermont's 2011 pertussis incidence was approximately 15/100,000.

Vermont's 2012 pertussis incidence was approximately 103/100,000.

It appears to me, from the data on your web site, that Vermont's 2014 rank is actually based on 2012 data. Please clarify. Thank you.

A Health Department news release Wednesday morning announced that America’s Health Rankings ranked Vermont as the second-healthiest state, but health officials did not raise questions about the quality of the data in that release.

Kelso added that the relatively low rate of DTaP vaccines is not the cause of high rates of whooping cough.

“Low vaccination rates aren’t the ‘cause’ of the increase in pertussis cases,” she said in an email statement, “and we have some very specific data (which has been shared) that the majority of pertussis cases were vaccinated.”

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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