By now you’ve heard the news. Those snack crackers you throw in your bag for lunch will get you. When they do, they’re gonna make you very sick to your stomach. It won’t be pretty. Between the sweats and the cramps, you’ll think you’re on one of those rehab reality shows. But when you look around and realize that there are no cameras, you’ll know. You have just become acquainted with Salmonella.
The suspect peanut butter is infested with a strain called Salmonella Typhimurium. But the current peanut butter scare reminded me of the great tomato scare of 2008. That time, the culprit was a strain known as Salmonella SaintPaul. I’ve lived here for a little under a year, and I have to say that I’ve never been in a place that takes as much pride in itself. We have festivals for snow, for sun, and fried food. We love our sports teams regardless of rank (I’m from Kansas City. As in KC Royals. Enough said.) All in all, people are proud to call Minnesota home. But to name a potentially fatal strain of Salmonella after the capital is a level of pride I’ve not come across. So I started asking around. Why is our state capital on the nation’s lips as a potentially fatal snack food?
My first stop was the Center for Disease Control. Their website is quite informative about salmonella. For example, I found out that A. It’s not that uncommon, B. It’s not fun, and C. You can get it from many, many sources. But nowhere did it say why strains have certain names. Emailing an epidemiologist at the CDC sent me back to St. Paul and over to the public health department. So I moved on. After lunch, of course.
It turns out that the strain known as Salmonella SaintPaul was named by a group of Ramsey County public health scientists. After discovering the strain years ago, they had the ability to name it as they saw fit. And being in the Ramsey County Department of Public Health, they named it accordingly.
I called to talk with these intrepid scientists over at Ramsey County PH, and hit another brick wall. It wasn’t that they aren’t employed there (I never got confirmation on that); it was that the Public Health department has many larger concerns right now. Its budget is on the chopping block. People are worried about their programs having enough funding to continue, including the research department. And in the wake of Governor Pawlenty’s sweeping slash and burn proposal for state public and health services, things aren’t looking good for Ramsey County PH.
Let that settle in for a minute. The public health budget may be on the chopping block. The men and women that check our water quality, contain public outbreaks, and find deadly strains of bacteria previously unknown to humankind may not have the money to keep us safe. Now put on your “It’s A Wonderful Life” hat and go back in time with these proposed budget cuts.
That TB outbreak this summer affecting recently released prisoners in Ramsey County cost the county a pretty penny. To find people just out of prison is not an easy task. If the resources hadn’t been available, what could have been done? Would we have let people with TB walk the streets without treatment?
And what about our friend Salmonella SaintPaul? What if the Research department wasn’t funded? Would we have found the bacteria? Would hundreds of people been made sick without knowing why? How many more lives would have been lost because of a “lack of funding? And these cuts are not confined to Ramsey County. Counties across Minnesota are being told that there just won’t be as much money as there used to be for public health initiatives. And the departments are facing a year where more people will be depending on basic public services to keep them safe and healthy.
They may not be the flashiest departments in the counties. You may not even think about the department of public health in your county. But remember that lack of public acknowledgement is simply because we don’t have to think about them.
Because what the public health department specializes in are silent essentials. They keep us safe from cholera, malaria, and other diseases that we just don’t think about anymore. And without adequate funding, what’s in our water, in our food, and on our streets will need to lurk in the back of our brains.
It’s a scary prospect to think that the public health departments are losing funding at the same time so many people are losing access to health services. Without jobs that provide the health care workers are used to, where will they turn when they are sick? How will people find out just how sick they are? How will be track the next outbreak if there’s not one left to track it? Minnesota has been a public health leader over the years. Cutting budgets that cut Minnesota lives short cannot be tolerated. These cuts aren’t just bad policy, they endanger Minnesotans. State policymakers should know better.