ROCKINGHAM — As Richmond County finds success in reducing its cases of diabetes and teen pregnancy, a “new” difficulty looms on the horizon — women who smoke during pregnancy.
The problem technically isn’t new, but the county’s emphasis on it is. The problem of smoking mothers-to-be thus joins the opioid epidemic and increase in sexually transmitted diseases among teens in becoming top targets for health initiatives.
“We’ve got to get a handle on women who choose to smoke while they’re pregnant,” Health Director Dr. Tommy Jarrell said Monday, reviewing highlights of the 2017 State of the County Health Report he delivered to county commissioners last week.
Figures for Richmond County show mothers-to-be smoke at twice the rate of similar women statewide. Richmond and neighboring Scotland County, in fact, are a little island unto themselves; other counties with similar problems are in old tobacco-producing areas to the north and west.
The culprit in this problem is the same for most of Richmond County’s other health difficulties, Jarrell said: poverty. Richmond County is economically depressed, and economically depressed people tend to smoke.
“We’ve seen some big improvements in infant mortality and teen pregnancy,” he said, although Richmond County still lags behind the rest of the state in reducing incidences of each. “The frustrating part is that there’s still a lot to be done.”
Poverty and single parenthood make for a self-defeating combination, Jarrell said. And babies born to “babies” tend to grow up in poverty, have babies too early themselves and find themselves more likely to end up in trouble with law enforcement, he said.
“The odds are highly against you if you don’t have a very strong support system in place,” he said — and even then, things can be difficult because “the opportunities aren’t always the same for everyone.”
Jarrell said the report also showed:
• County demographics changed little when it came to race or gender, although the population declined slightly from one reporting year to the next (2015 to 2016).
• The leading two causes of death remained heart disease and cancer, a result opposite the top two causes in North Carolina as a whole. The flip-flop, Jarrell said, “has to do with smoking” and a lack of exercise.
• Richmond County attributed 22, or 3.9 percent, of deaths to diabetes during the latest reporting year (2016), the report showed. That topped the state’s 3.1 percent, as well as the rate of deaths per 100,000 in surrounding Hoke, Montgomery and Moore counties.
The good news there, Jarrell said, is that Richmond County is home to two grant-financed programs aimed at working to change lifestyles and reduce the incidence of diabetes. Both grants involve FirstHealth’s working with local doctors, alongside the county Health Department and the county’s 2020 Task Force.
• Infant mortality remains above the state average, at 9.7 per 1,000 children from birth to age 1.
• The rate of teen pregnancy has continued to drop, Jarrell said, although the ranking of No. 6 in the state is misleading. Some counties have so few pregnancies that their pregnant teens make an insignificant blip on the ranking radar — so Richmond County is No. 6 of fewer than 100 counties, he said.
• And although the rate of teen pregnancy has dropped, the rate of teens contracting chlamydia or gonorrhea have risen, which the report labels “concerning.”
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]