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Public Health Issues in Houston

Houston is one of the most diverse and dynamic cities in America. The Space City is the fourth largest in the nation, with a metro area that covers nine counties and over 9,000 square miles, stretching from the sandy shores of the Gulf Coast to the piney woods of Southeast Texas. It's a place as unique as its geographic footprint, but Houston also faces significant public health challenges, sometimes due to its location and weather. The city's health systems, health officials and front-line public health workers are some of its most important unsung heroes for the ongoing work they do to support citizens of this bustling city and its expansive metropolitan area.

Diverse Challenges in Public Health

The Houston metro area is home to approximately 6,892,427 people and it is still growing, with over 94,000 new residents in 2017. Public health challenges continue to grow with the population, but data for Harris County, which encompasses the city of Houston, reveals a great deal about the types of issues citizens are facing.

While hospitalization rates are lower than average, a number of residents are not getting the primary care they need. Only 68 percent of adults in the county are getting routine checkups each year, and fewer pregnant women are getting adequate prenatal care than in other Texas cities. Less than 30 percent of older residents are receiving the preventive care needed to ensure their continued health, and 71 percent of county residents are overweight or obese, a condition that can lead to a host of life-threatening health issues.

Chronic disease is the leading cause of mortality in Harris County, and heart disease, cancer and stroke are responsible for almost 60 percent of deaths. Breast and prostate cancer are among the most frequently diagnosed cancers in the county, but lung cancer remains the leading killer of both men and women. Respiratory disease, diabetes and accidents are frequent causes of death as well, and injuries from motor vehicle accidents and accidental drowning are the most common cause of death for children ages 1-17.

Infectious disease is also a considerable health threat in Harris County, due to foodborne illness as well as drug-resistant strains of staph, strep, tuberculosis and salmonella. Mosquito-borne disease and environmental issues such as toxic mold have also become significant factors in public health in recent years, often as an aftereffect of flooding. Poverty is another factor that effects rates of disease and illness in Harris County, which can differ by ethnicity, neighborhood, income level or access to health insurance.

Weather and Natural Disasters

Flooding may be the most significant mass health issue Houston regularly faces. It is an ongoing threat and its consequences can be devastating. The city rests only 50 feet above sea level, so streets tend to flood easily and often. It is comparable to New Orleans, another low-lying city integrated with streams, bayous and lakes that can quickly overflow during a hard rain. Flooding poses a number of different public health risks, both during and after the event, including:

  • Drowning incidents, due to driving or walking in areas with high water or strong currents.
  • Injuries that can occur in areas covered by floodwater, such as falling into manholes or stepping on foreign objects.
  • Infection or illness resulting from exposure to flood water containing bacteria, chemicals or human waste.
  • Illness from drinking contaminated tap water or water from lakes and streams.
  • Illness resulting from mold exposure due to growth on water-damaged surfaces in homes, schools or businesses.

Catastrophic flooding also happens in Houston more often than in many other cities due to its long history with hurricanes. A report recently published by the Baker Institute at Rice University indicates that the city's devastation by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 may well surpass that of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. Excessive rainfall and coastal storm surge flooded over 150,000 homes as well as thousands more businesses in the Houston metro area during Harvey. Hurricane-force winds and the tornadoes the storm spawned also demolished homes and businesses, sending vehicles and structures flying through the air, turning hazardous debris into projectiles.

Thousands of public health professionals from across the nation responded to this disaster, offering assistance to people in the city and along the Gulf Coast who were impacted by the storm. They provided every kind of help imaginable, from rescuing those stranded to helping victims fill out paperwork and apply for government or insurance benefits. Public health officials and workers — including personnel from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Red Cross, numerous county and city health departments, and hundreds of nonprofit organizations — have now spent more than a year on the front lines of the Harvey response and recovery effort.

Public Health Professionals Keep Houston Strong

Houston citizens are known for their strength and resilience in the face of crisis and a pioneer spirit that keeps them going in the worst of times. Public health professionals working in this engaging and complex city have a variety of challenges to address, but they play a vitally important role in keeping all Houstonians safe and healthy.

Learn more about UTA's online Bachelor of Science in Public Health program.


Greater Houston Partnership: Population Update

Greater Houston Partnership: Houston Metropolitan Statistical Area Profile

Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University: Houston a Year After Harvey — Where We Are and Where We Need to Be        

Harris County Public Health: Public Health Data

Conduent Healthy Communities Institute: Houston State of Health

CDCCenters for Disease Control: Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance - Biggest Threats and Data                          

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