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More than 35 women gathered Wednesday to discuss what they believe are the most important health issues for women and girls in Calvert County.

The Calvert Commission for Women, which hosted the forum, brought health officials from the Calvert County Health Department, Calvert Memorial Hospital and various community organizations as well as residents together to discuss the major health problems women and girls in the county face.

The major issues brought up included mental health access and availability, cancer, obesity and nutrition, health care access, awareness of services offered in the county, and overall preventative wellness.

“There are no surprises,” County Health Officer Laurence Polsky said of the list of the issues. “I think all of these are prevalent.”

He said he would add preteen and teen smoking to the list because fighting the issue early on would prevent higher rates of smoking and, eventually, lung cancer in the county.

Calvert has a higher rate of women who smoke, Polsky told the attendees, noting that it could be an explanation for the higher rate of lung cancer in women in the county.

He said two of the other initiatives the community needs to focus on, “that go hand in hand,” is economic independence and education for women. He said if women have higher levels of education, they are more likely to be more economically independent and would be better able to afford and have access to health care, and afford and access healthier food and exercise.

Polsky said as far as mental health is concerned, there is a national shortage of those services. He said Calvert is lucky that the health department offers mental health services, because many in the state do not.

“We’re trying to attract psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and others down here,” Polsky said. He added that Johns Hopkins will soon be implementing a hotline for doctors to call a psychiatrist should a patient need mental health services. “It’s going to help them better handle their patients,” he said.

Following a study released late last year that indicated that Calvert County has the second highest breast cancer mortality rate in the state, Polsky said he and other members of the health department and CMH have been trying to understand why that is.

“It’s not clear why, yet,” he explained. “We’re working on collecting more information.”

Polsky said the health department has applied for a Komen Foundation grant that would be used to help figure out where and to whom the county should be targeting its services.

When it comes to obesity and nutrition, Polsky said “nothing works.” He explained that the biggest problem is that people don’t cook and are eating too many processed foods.

“Even the poorest person can eat healthy when they cook their own food,” Polsky said, debunking the stigma that fresh food costs more than processed and frozen foods.

Margaret Dunkle, chairwoman of the commission, said it appeared to her that the list of issues is comprised of “four whats” and “two major ways.”

The first what, she said, is heart attacks and strokes; the second is cancer with a focus on breast cancer; the third, mental health; and the fourth is obesity, nutrition, diabetes and exercise. The first way to help combat these issues is to promote education and economic independence, Dunkle explained. The second way to combat these, she said, is advocacy and awareness that these issues exist in the community, of what services are offered and where people can go for help.

She said that while creating the list of issues is helpful, there needs to be people in the community willing to do something about them and to help.

Suzanne Haynes, senior science advisor with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said one of the big issues is that health awareness campaigns “don’t exist” in Calvert. She said DHHS is working on a new healthy weight campaign.

“Women don’t respond to weight anymore,” she said, explaining that the approaches to these issues may need to change for anything to happen. For the Healthy Weight Program, Haynes said the approach is “wouldn’t you like to feel better … let’s make you feel better, about you and about yourself.”

She said another thing the community could do is hold health fairs so that those people who can’t necessarily afford health care and regular checkups could go out and get their blood pressure and their cholesterol levels checked. “Get these people out,” she told the attendees.

“I love the energy in this room,” Haynes said. “I love the people in this room. We can connect with people who can help.”

aharrison@somdnews.com