Mississippi's syphilis and tuberculosis cases are increasing at an alarming rate, and the staffing shortage at the Mississippi Department of Health isn't helping the situation, the agency's interim chief said.
Interim State Health Officer Dr. Ed Thompson said the agency needs more nurses, disease investigators and clinic workers. Those employees help to identify patients with communicable diseases, provide treatment and locate others who have come into contact with infected patients.
Thompson said lawmakers will be asked to increase the agency's budget next fiscal year.
"We're doing a needs assessment across the state to present to the legislature," Thompson said Thursday. "We're not adequately staffed in our clinics. We need to get more money from the state to hire nurses."
The Department of Health on Thursday reported 223 early syphilis cases between January and June of this year — a 135 percent increase over the same period in 2006 when there were 95 cases.
In the first six months of 2007, 49 cases of tuberculosis were reported, compared with 51 during the same period in 2006. Mississippi saw its first TB case in 15 years in 2006.
Mississippi's case rate for TB and syphilis were among the worst in the nation two decades ago, but through "basic public health fundamentals" the Health Department was able to significantly reduce the number of cases, Thompson said.
"If we don't gain control of it, we will be once again the highest in the nation," Thompson said.
Syphilis is a potentially deadly disease that first shows up as genital sores. It can be treated with penicillin or antibiotics.
Tuberculosis is a disease caused by germs that are spread from person to person through the air. It usually affects the lungs and can lead to symptoms such as chest pain and coughing up blood. It kills nearly 2 million people each year worldwide, but can be treated with antibiotics.
Thompson was previously state health officer from 1993 to 2002 before taking a job with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He was tapped earlier this month to return to the Department of Health following the firing of Dr. Brian Amy.
Thompson said one factor contributing to the increase is that "we're not doing control efforts as well." He said the agency had 66 disease investigators five years ago. Now, there are only 34.
House Public Health Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said the Department of Health's budget has been cut 35 percent over the last four years. Lawmakers approved $36.9 million in general funds for the agency's budget for the current fiscal year.
"The fact of the matter is Dr. Thompson is going to be perfectly in line to come to the legislature and say, 'Do your part,"' Holland said.
Until then, Thompson said he's creating a task force to develop an immediate plan to stem the increase in communicable diseases.
"We can't wait until we get new resources to begin addressing syphilis," Thompson said.