Smith County has gotten a little less healthy, according to a report released Wednesday.
The health rankings report is published annually by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The report examines 25 factors that influence health, such as smoking rates, teen birth rates, access to doctors, poverty and access to healthful foods. Data used to compile the reports were collected between 2008 and 2012.
National trends also show that child poverty rates have not improved since 2000, but locally, Cherokee, Gregg, Rusk, Henderson, Upshur and Wood counties have reported slight improvements in childhood poverty.
Nationally, the rates of premature deaths are at the lowest level in 20 years, according to the report. That trend is reflected in Smith, Anderson, Cherokee, Gregg, Rusk and Henderson counties. It does show, however, that East Texas counties still have premature death rates above the state and national averages.
In Upshur, Van Zandt and Wood counties, premature death rates have worsened since last year's report.
Northeast Texas Public Health District received more than $700,000 last year through a state-funded Community Transformation Grant to address public health issues.
Van Zandt and Wood counties, along with Smith, are included in the initiative to improve obesity and chronic illnesses among its residents.
“That's one of the reasons the state asked us to take on these counties,” said George Roberts, chief executive officer at NET Health.
Adult obesity rates remained flat during the last two years in Smith and surrounding counties, ranging from 26 percent to 33 percent.
Roberts attributed some of the poorer factors and outcomes to the East Texas culture, which includes fried foods and lack of activity. He said it might take at least two years to see improvements attributed to local efforts to thwart trends.
“The challenge continues to be that we as individuals get healthy and monitor our nutrition and our exercise, which would make an improvement on premature death, obesity rates,” Roberts said. “We are seeing positive trends toward better nutrition and exercise habits. But it'll take some time to see the fruits of that activity.”
There's a real connection between education level, income level and health,” he said. If you look at some poverty levels in East Texas you'll see some differences.”
Roberts noted that programs established during the past few years include the Fit City Challenge, Lighten Up East Texas, the NET Health Breast Health Screening Initiative and Pay Attention East Texas, a campaign to prevent motor vehicle crash deaths.
According to the report, Texas' motor vehicle crash death rate, at 15, has increased since last year but decreased in East Texas counties. But these rates are still higher than the state's rates, ranging from 21 to 37.
Nationally, an average of 18 percent of the population is uninsured. In Smith County, the number of uninsured increased from 25 percent to 27 percent, slightly above the state's figure of 26 percent. Cherokee, Gregg, Henderson and Upshur counties also saw slight increases in the percentage of uninsured residents.
Access to recreational activities and drinking water safety are new measurements included in this year's report under the physical environment category. Other measurements include daily fine particulate matter, limited access to healthy foods and the percentage of fast food restaurants.
Smith County's physical environment score went from 198 last year to 124 in this year's report. However, data collected in one of the measurements — limited access to healthy foods — has a change in definition from prior years. Nonetheless, Roberts said he recognizes that people are more conscious about nutrition.
Violent crime also has decreased nationwide by nearly 50 percent during the last 20 years. In East Texas, Gregg County exceeds the state's violent crime rate of 483 per 100,000 residents. The county's rate is 715, compared to 771 last year.
Gregg County also continues a trend of a high number of sexually transmitted infections, going from 688 last year to 718 in Wednesday's report. The state figure is 476 and the national average is 315. But a limitation is that this figure reflects a chlamydia rate per 100,000 residents only.
Officials at the Gregg County Health Department said Wednesday the higher numbers of sexually transmitted disease rates may reflect the fact that not all people seen at their clinics are from Gregg County. With access to STD testing and treatment in rural areas extremely limited, people in surrounding areas go to Longview, where services are free and more accessible.
Smith County also has reported higher numbers of STD rates, at 486, compared to 478 in last year's report. Rusk, Upshur, Van Zandt and Wood Counties all saw improvements in STD rates and were better than the state's rate.
A new health factor measurement under the clinical care category is access to dentists. Gregg and Smith counties' patient-to-dentist ratio fare better than the state ratio, while surrounding counties have severely limited access to dental services, such as Upshur County, with a ratio of 9,976:1, compared to the state's 2,200:1.