Appalachian Health and Well-Being Forum focused on the positive health initiatives going on in southeastern Kentucky

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Scientists, community leaders and researchers gathered at the Appalachian Health and Well-Being Forum at Whitesburg in July to share information about successful health and disease prevention programs in the region, to explore the role of community in preventing disease and promoting well-beings and to discuss the links between environment and health.

Linda Birnbaum

The forum was prompted by Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health. She told those at the forum that the mission of her agency is “to discover how the environment affects people in order to promote healthier lives. More and more, we are all realizing that the environment influences our health.”

Birnbaum pointed out that many diseases are linked to the environment, including asthma, infertility, lung diseases, Parkinson’s, autism, birth defects and many cancers. She stressed the importance of doing research to understand the problem before pushing for solutions, noting community members have used NIEHS research to create healthier communities.

“As I see it, environmental health research is the key to preventing disease because you can’t change your genes, but you can change your environment,” she said.

Though Birnbaum did not mention it in her prepared remarks, an ongoing environmental concern in the Appalachian region is the possible link between mountaintop-removal coal mining and health, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Indiana University School of Public Health are researching.

In addition, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement announced recently that it will fund a $1 million study to examine links between surface coal mines in Central Appalachia and increased health risks of residents living near those mines.

Birnbaum was able to talk to local leaders about issues affecting the natural resources in the community during her site visits to the University of Kentucky Center of Excellence in Rural Health in Hazard, the Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp., the Appalshop media center and the Cowan Community Center in Whitesburg, according to a UK news release.

The forum, held at the Letcher County Cooperative Extension Service office, was sponsored by UK and NIEHS, which has provided almost $12 million for health research in Kentucky.

Fran Feltner

Fran Feltner, director of the UK CERH in Hazard, who participated in the forum, mentioned several successful health programs at the Center during a telephone interview, including: the Center’s efforts to assess the health-related workforce needs in the region and then finding ways to fill them; working with Kentucky Homeplace, which helps people in the region gain access to medical, social and environmental services; a federal grant program that helps get children in the region signed up for health insurance; and its mobile dental unit that provides dental services to children at local schools.

“It was a positive meeting where we came together as leaders and talked about the things that are happening throughout our region to improve the health of the region,” Feltner said.

Along with Birnbaum and Feltner, Dawn Brewer, assistant professor in the UK Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition in the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment; and L.M. “Mike” Caudill, chief executive officer of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp., participated in a panel discussion that focused on the role of community in preventing disease and promoting health and well-being.

Brewer described nutrition research that hopes to “make the healthy choice, the easy, or default, choice” and Caudill talked about the importance of place and how it is central to MCHC’s efforts to promote health within the region, the news release said.

At table, L-R: Mike Caudill, Fran Feltner, Dawn Brewer, Linda Birnbaum

Feltner talked about how a depressed economy affects the health of a community and expanded on her comments during an interview.

When a person becomes unemployed their “normal living conditions” dramatically change and can affect their health, she said.

“Research supports that economic status has more to do with your health outcomes than any other thing because you risk being homeless, you risk separation from your family and community network, it creates economic and cultural barriers and all of this can be devastating to your health,” Feltner said. “And psychologically, I think it is hard to feel your worth when you have been working and all at once you find yourself unemployed, so the mental health aspects play into it as well.”

Feltner said while she saw no immediate solution to improve employment in the region, people in the region had to “come together to find solutions to do something different” because they could no longer depend on coal mining.

“I have always believed that communities can work together and that they can come up with solutions,” Feltner said. “And sometimes there needs to be just a little bit of help. We can’t come in and tell people what to do, but we can listen and help them find solutions.”

She added, “The strength that we have in Appalachia is that we have a strong sense of where we are from and where we live and a commitment to our neighbors and friends.”

For an audio report on the forum, from WMMT-FM of Whitesburg, click here.

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