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Health Briefs

Folic Acid Distribution

The Virginia Department of Health began offering free folic acid supplements to family planning patients in 19 of its health districts, including Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

Studies have shown that daily consumption of 400 micrograms of the B vitamin folic acid can reduce the risk of birth defects of the brain and spine such as spina bifida and anencephaly, the two most common neural tube birth defects, by as much as 70 percent, according to the department of heath.

It is estimated that women receive only about 25 percent of the recommended daily dosage of folic acid from their diet, even when it is balanced and includes grains fortified with folic acid, according to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Approximately 43,000 women, or 59 percent of the department of health's family planning patients, are expected to receive the supplement during this two-year program.

The program is targeting 19 health districts to participate in the distribution program that had spina bifida birth rates of at least 5.24 per 10,000 live births. Districts whose family planning clients were at least 29 percent Hispanic were also chosen, as several studies have shown that the Hispanic population experiences higher rates of neural tube birth defects. Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties were chosen because the Hispanic population is more than 29 percent, according to the department of health.

Approximately 40 children are born each year in Virginia with spina bifida, according to the health department. Spina bifida is caused when a baby's spine does not close properly. Approximately 10 children are born in the state with anencephaly, which occurs when the brain does not form properly, according to the state health department.

Women can get the recommended daily amount of 400 micrograms of folic acid by taking a folic acid supplement, a multivitamin and by increasing their consumption of foods fortified with folic acid, according the health department. Foods high in folic acid include enriched cereal, bread, rice, pasta, and other grain products. Foods that naturally contain folic acid include orange juice, dried beans, lentils, spinach, asparagus and leafy green vegetables.

For more information on folic acid and how it can prevent birth defects, visit http://www.vahealth.org/wic/folicacid.htm .

National Immunization Awareness Month

August is National Immunization Awareness Month and the Virginia Department of Health hopes to remind people of all ages living in the United States about the importance of immunization. Local health departments will sponsor activities throughout the month to spread awareness about immunizations, improve immunization coverage levels and promote access to health services. Some activities will include free immunization clinics, physicals for school-age children, educational presentations, and immunization fairs with exhibitions and health screenings. Residents should contact their local health department for details.

There is an average of 114,000 influenza-related hospitalizations and 36,000 influenza-related deaths each year in the United States, according to the department of health. Approximately 340,000 children and adolescents have chronic illnesses placing them at increased risk for influenza disease and its complications, according to the health department.

Approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cases of meningococcal disease are reported annually in the United States. An estimated 150 deaths occurred in the United States due to meningococcal disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research from 2002. In 2004, 24 cases of the disease were reported in Virginia, resulting in two fatalities, according to the health department.

People as young as 11 years old should be vaccinated against meningococcal disease. The vaccine is also recommended for adolescents beginning high school who have not already been vaccinated. Other groups that should be vaccinated include college freshman living in dormitories and people traveling to countries where meningococcal disease is epidemic.

The viruses and bacteria that cause vaccine-preventable diseases and death still exist and can infect people who are not immunized. Vaccine-preventable diseases have a costly impact, resulting in doctor's visits, hospitalizations and premature deaths, according to the health department.

Maintaining high immunization rates protects the entire population by interrupting the transmission of disease-causing bacteria or viruses. This type of protection is known as community, or herd, immunity, the concept that protecting the majority with safe, effective vaccines also protects those who cannot be immunized for medical reasons, according to the health department.

For children going back to school, the department of health requires students have vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenza type b, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and varicella.

For more information on immunization for people of all ages, visit http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/imm/index.asp.

Fish Consumption Advisories

The Virginia Department of Health has issued a new fish consumption advisory and has modified several existing advisories for various waterways throughout the Commonwealth. The advisories are in response to recent tissue sample tests conducted by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

Test results indicate that the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and mercury exceed maximum levels allowed for bodies of water where fish are harvested for food, according to the department of health.

Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children should not eat fish contaminated with PCBs or mercury from these advisory areas.

The areas and advisories include:

* Fairfax County--Indian Run (entire Run) near Annandale downstream from State Route 236 approximately three miles to Back Lick Run. No more than two eight-ounce meals per month of creek chub should be consumed.

* Fairfax County, Manassas Park City and Prince William County--Bull Run near Manassas Park from the I-66 bridge downstream approximately 14 miles to the Route 612 (Yates Ford Road) bridge. The previous advisory recommended that no more than two eight-ounce meals per month of channel catfish should be consumed. The advisory has been updated to also recommend that no more than two eight-ounce meals per month of carp should be consumed.

Because PCBs tend to concentrate in the fatty tissues of the fish, the department of health recommends the following precautions to reduce any potential harmful effects from eating fish:

Eat the smaller, younger fish (within the legal limits). Younger fish are less likely to contain harmful levels of contaminants than larger, older fish.

* Remove the skin, the fat from the belly and top, and internal organs before cooking the fish.

* Bake, broil or grill on an open rack to allow fats to drain away from the meat.

* Discard the fats that cook out of the fish.

* Avoid or reduce the amount of fish drippings or broth that is used to flavor the meal.

* Eat less deep-fried fish, since frying seals contaminants into the fatty tissue.

Mercury concentrates in the fish muscle and is not reduced by cleaning or cooking.

For more information visit http://www.vdh.virginia.gov/HHControl/fishingadvisories.asp.

Department of Health Upgrades Web Site

Recognizing the need to quickly find up-to-date information on important public health issues, the Virginia Department of Health has redesigned its Web site. The new site makes important health information easily accessible.

The redesigned home page organizes information by topics, such as Disease Information and Prevention, Healthy Living, Emergency Preparedness and Response and Protecting the Environment. The updated search function makes it easy to find information without having to know how the department of health is organized or having to guess which office to look up.

Visit http://www.vdh.virginia.gov to learn more.