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Despite gaps in health ranks, Champaign, Vermilion counties share common ground

CHAMPAIGN – How healthy you are has a lot to do with where you live, according to a new report that found a wide disparity in the health of Illinois residents, depending on which of the state's 102 counties they call home.

The report released this morning by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin looked at the overall health and risk factors in more than 3,000 counties in all 50 states.

Vermilion County was found to be among the 10 unhealthiest communities in Illinois, in terms of both overall health and risk factors such as the number of adults who smoke, are obese and engage in binge drinking and high-risk sexual behaviors.

Champaign County was ranked 31st among the state's counties for its overall health and 25th in risk factors.



Public health administrators in both counties weren't surprised.

"We've been seeing the same kind of numbers for years, and nothing has changed," said Steve Laker, administrator of the Vermilion County Health Department.

Laker said public health executives have known about the upcoming report since December, and he fully expected his county to rank near the bottom in Illinois for having an infant mortality rate that hasn't improved enough, a teen birth rate that has been consistently high for four decades and factors such as poverty, unemployment and education rates that play a role in how healthy people tend to be.

Public health focuses on prevention, and many of the factors aren't in his department's control, Laker said. But he has called a communitywide meeting to discuss the report later today.

"These are community problems," he said.

Champaign-Urbana Public Health District Administrator Julie Pryde said some factors pulling down Champaign County in the rankings were its air quality and some of the risk factors related to sex and alcohol that are the inevitable result of being home to a high number of college students.

"Overall, I was pleased," she said. "Of course, I would like to see us number one, but what I like about these is it gives us something to look at."

The County Health Rankings report evaluated health outcomes in each county in the United States by looking at the rate of people dying before they reach age 75, the percentage of people who report they are in fair or poor health, the number of days people report being in poor physical or mental health and the rate of infants with low birth weights.

Researchers also looked at factors affecting health, access to clinical care, the physical environment of the community, the number of uninsured adults, the rates of high school graduates, the number of children living in poverty, homicide rates, access to healthful foods, the density of liquor stores and such behavioral risk factors as adult smoking and obesity rates and teen pregnancies.

Only 30 percent of residents in both Champaign and Vermilion counties have access to healthy foods, according to the report. In both counties, 28 percent of adult residents are obese.

Champaign County has more uninsured adults than Vermilion County, according to the report. One in five residents in Champaign County are uninsured, compared to one in 10 residents in Vermilion County.

"These rankings demonstrate that health happens where we live, learn, work and play. And much of what influences how healthy we are and how long we live happens outside the doctor's office," said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, chief executive of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropic group devoted to improving health and health care in the United States.

The foundation contends health can be improved at the community level through programs and policies: For example, more parks and recreation choices encourage people to exercise more.

Pryde and Laker said they see an opportunity in today's report to focus on things that need to change in their communities.

Think the health shortcomings in Vermilion County aren't your problem because you don't live there? Pryde contends borders are irrelevant when it comes to illness, and budget cuts and an uncertain future for the Vermilion County Health Department will have a ripple effect on Champaign County.

"The sad thing about this, and I don't know why people don't understand that, is prevention is so much less expensive than (health) care," Pryde said.


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