Missouri health conference tackles public health issues

The conference featured a panelist from the MU School of Journalism.
Rachel Michaels / Graphic Designer

Columbia hosted the annual Missouri Public Health Conference this week, which concludes Friday at the Stoney Creek Inn.

“The goal of the conference is two-fold,” said Mahree Skala, executive director of Missouri Association of Local Public Health Agencies. “First, to provide continuing education for those working in the field of public health and for students, and to provide valuable networking.”

MoALPHA is one of five organizations participating in this joint conference. The Missouri Public Health Association, Missouri Association of Local Boards of Health, Missouri Institute for Community Health and the Council for Public Health Nursing are also participating.

Representatives from these organizations attended the conference along with a strong student representation, MPHA President Pat Morgester said.

Students hailed from MU, Missouri State University and Washington University in St. Louis. In all, around 170 attended this week’s conference, Morgester said.

The tagline for the conference was “A Healthier Missouri Begins Today,” and that is reflected in the breakout workshops which help to provide the continuing education Skala referenced.

According to a promotional flier, topics for breakout workshops range from community programs for healthy weight to mental health as well as discussions on how health departments can improve funding.

Jon Stemmle, assistant professor at the MU School of Journalism and co-director of the Health Communication Research Center, was on the panel for the workshop focusing on community programs for healthy weight.

“(I talked) about our Photovoice Missouri project and how we’re trying to work with middle and high school students and teachers to improve the health of Missouri’s communities,” Stemmle said.

Morgester said this conference is important because it raises awareness about public health conditions in Missouri.

One of the top public health issues is tobacco use, Morgester said. He said that a low excise tax contributes to the increase in smoking among young people.

Missouri’s current cigarette tax is 17 cents, but there is a proposition on the November ballot to increase that tax to 90 cents.

The risks for chronic disease such as obesity and tobacco use, and lack of funding for public resources are the top public health issues for Missouri, Skala said. She also said people would benefit by understanding the value of prevention and promotion.

“Personally, I’d say childhood obesity, the rates of smoking and the underfunding of public health agencies are the three biggest problems,” Stemmle said. “Public health workers are on the front lines to solving some of the major problems, like obesity, diabetes, etc., yet they are chronically underfunded year after year.”

Missouri was recently ranked the 12th most obese state. Although the conference did not directly address that ranking, it did discuss increasing youth activity, the lack of physical fitness and lowering obesity, Morgester said.

“It’s mainly another example of the difficult work we have in front of us and how important the work being done by public health agencies and groups like the HCRC is to trying to solve this problem,” Stemmle said.

The conference addressed a myriad of different topics and it provided opportunities for networking. Morgester referred to it as sharpening the saw and recharging the battery. Skala had a different take.

“It’s important for people attending to gain new knowledge, share that knowledge and inspire new ways to tackle problems,” she said.

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