Gila County residents are more likely to get pregnant as teenagers and die young than other Arizonans, but less likely to binge drink, a recently released report found.
The report gauged a county’s healthiness based on a slew of factors including premature death, smoking and obesity. It also weighed social and economic factors like high school graduation rates and unemployment.
Gila County ranked last in so-called health outcomes, which gauged people’s feelings of health along with premature deaths, and 10th out of 15 counties in health factors, which included teen pregnancy rates and poverty levels, among other things.
“Being last in the state is not a good place to be,” said county Health Director David Fletcher. However, he said the report provides the opportunity to address shortfalls. “It could be a positive thing in the future,” he said.
Residents in Gila County smoke more and weigh more than other Arizona residents, and have less access to healthy foods. They are also more likely to die in a car crash or by homicide.
One of the more striking statistics was that of the county’s teen birth rate. At 84 per 1,000, Gila Gila County tied with La Paz for the highest rate in Arizona. The state average was 63 per 1,000. Interestingly, Gila County has fewer single family households than the state average.
Supervisor Tommie Martin said the teen pregnancy rates stood out most for her because of the broader social implications. “Those girls are not apt to go on and get a decent education, or job,” she said. “It puts them on a path that they would not be on otherwise.”
Fletcher said that when the teen pregnancy rate dropped during the ’90s boon era, poverty rates also fell. “You’ve got to remember that public health is all interrelated with everything,” he said.
The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation jointly conducted the research to raise awareness across communities of local health issues.
The report ranked counties within each state, but did not single out the most and least healthy counties nationwide.
Fletcher and Martin both said the county should work to address some of the topics highlighted in the report.
“Government can’t solve everything,” said Fletcher. “What you can do is educate.”
He said discussions have begun on organizing a teen pregnancy coalition. Another step could involve addressing the lack of driver’s education for teens. Gila County’s motor vehicle crash death rate is 33 per 1,000, compared to 20 for the state average.
However, many moves costs money. “We could take care of all society’s ills if we had enough money and time,” Fletcher said.
The results concern Martin, but she doesn’t believe government is the total answer.
“While it’s a county problem, it’s not a county government problem,” she said. Still, “we need to take a look at that.”
In other results, Gila County residents reported more days with poor mental health and higher rates of children living in poverty. However, residents see lower rates of the sexually transmitted disease Chlamydia, a lower percentage of uninsured adults than other Arizonans, and fewer college degrees. The percentage of high school graduates matches the state average at 71 percent.
Both Fletcher and Martin questioned the science behind the report, although they did not dispute Gila’s low ranking.
Fletcher said that a huge portion of the health outcomes that Gila fared so badly in was self-reported. Researchers randomly called people and asked them how many days in the past month they felt in poor health.
Martin pointed to Gila County’s lower than average rates of binge drinking as suspect. “I don’t know that that’s true,” she said, adding that anecdotal evidence leads her to believe the rates are higher than reported.
“I don’t know how they counted binge drinkers.”
Still, she said, even if an error or two worked in Gila County’s favor, “what would it do? Push us to 14?”