DeKalb County, Georgia, is only 15 minutes away from Atlanta and shares many of its health issues. Dr. Sandra Ford is the director of the DeKalb County Board of Health and her work not only impacts the county but the entire state of Georgia. Rolling out spoke with Dr. Ford about the mission of her agency and heath issues facing the public.
What is the mission of the DeKalb County Board of Health?
To protect, promote and improve the health of those that work, live and play here in the county.
What is your personal mission statement as director of the Board of Health?
To leave this county’s health status better than it was when I got here. To empower people to change their own environment. Because we have a staff of 500 people so we can only effect so much change, that’s when it becomes something that a resident should be involved in also. It is up to them to say, “Hey, I want fresh fruit or better produce” or to get rid of liquor stores or improve the food in our schools. That’s not us, that’s the community, and so, hopefully, we give the community power to speak up and tell what they want.
What are three of the biggest health issues facing DeKalb County today?
Chronic disease, chronic disease, chronic disease. We are dying and there are disparities in chronic disease. There is a population like in many cities that are very healthy, but there is also a population that is unnecessarily unhealthy. There is access but people just don’t go to the doctor and avail themselves of whatever opportunity that is out there to get health care, because they are afraid or for other reasons. For example, we are having another conversation about the importance of vaccines again and these kinds of things frustrate me because it’s not always a matter of not having availability .
How would you rate the health of a DeKalb County resident on a scale of 1-10 among other citizens of Georgia?
Data shows that DeKalb County residents are healthier than the state of Georgia overall except for homicides and motor vehicle accidents. Even in terms of chronic diseases, we tend to be healthier. Compared to Georgia we are a 7 to 8, nationally we have a way to go.
In your opinion are Black millennials taking the risk of HIV and other STD infections seriously?
They are not even taking the risks of health seriously. I think all millennials — not just Black millennials — think they are invincible and I have a teenage son. We have gotten them so conditioned that pills can cure everything. I have heard adolescents in the clinic describing HIV as just a virus. When I grew up people were throwing away dishes because a person with HIV ate from them. The stigma was like a modern-day leprosy. … I have heard that some people are trying to get HIV because of the economic benefits that victims of the disease have such as housing and other social services, which just blows my mind. That whole mindset among the youth that everything is fixable is why we have these epidemics.
As far as STDs go, some of the things that the parents tell me are just amazing. One young lady had two children and the older of the kids also had a child. So she was trying to get the younger one more mindful so she’s giving her condoms and talking about birth control, which I thought was very progressive. Her son’s girlfriend said, “if you’re trying to use a condom that must mean you have something.”
When a parent is dealing with a sexually active child, what three things are important to share?
-Never be afraid to tell me anything.
-Do not listen to your friends.
-One bad decision could change your whole life.
I gave my son a very graphic explanation that he will be telling to his grandkids. We were doing an HIV awareness campaign so I keep condoms in my car. I believe at the time he was in the seventh grade and he saw them and asked, “what is that?” I told him you know what that is and had him take one out and put it on the gearshift. He was acting scared and I told him it was not a trick. The condom broke and I told him “that right there is the difference of you being a daddy and not being a daddy or catching something you can’t be cured from.” His eyes got all big, but it will stick. With kids, you have to be visual.
Another thing that’s disturbing about millennials is that they’re courting-hooking up with non-emotional sex. You’re more likely to have unprotected sex because it is all random and not planned out. They don’t even schedule dates, it’s like “whatcha doing right now, OK, come over and hang out.” It just a different kind of courting process and I think that’s going to be a problem as we move along.
What is the rate of new HIV infections among DeKalb County residents?
We are still trying to pull the actual numbers, but the largest group is men having sex with men [MSM] ages19-34. This is not a surprise. However, I can tell you is that the 50 and older population in DeKalb County has one of the fastest growing rates of HIV infection.
Is this due to ED drugs like Viagra?
Viagra and drugs like it are one part but also it’s the physician. Many are not comfortable about asking that age range about their sexual activity. So they are not asking the same questions as say a pediatrician who always asks these questions. If you’re going to a physical a doctor is probably not going to ask are you using condoms, especially if there a woman, they’re just not comfortable. These sexual behavior questions are important. My own personal doctor diagnosed a patient with HIV who was over the age of 50.
How bad is syphilis in DeKalb County?
Fulton County is No. 1 on the list and DeKalb is No. 2. Georgia is first in the nation for primary and secondary syphilis.
What’s causing this rise in numbers?
Testing, you don’t find what you’re not looking for.
If a person at a DekKalb County health facility is diagnosed with syphilis is their name and personal information unlinked from statistics?
Absolutely. It is completely confidential. What does happen, however, is contact investigation if a person has a diagnosis of HIV or syphilis. There is an attempt to notify the sexual contact of exposure to the disease. That is outreach as a public health protection.