OLEAN – As the Cattaraugus County Board of Health reaches its 90th anniversary, its achievements have resurfaced as a reminder of the importance of proactive public health programs.
The board was the first in New York and was recognized as a pioneer in rural public health.
Before the creation of the county health board, residents had no centralized authority to monitor the part-time municipal health office and school health inspector. The only central facility in the county was the Rocky Crest Sanitorium, opened in 1916, to give tuberculosis patients a place to go for treatment.
The work of the health board, organized in 1923, was a demonstration project as part of the Milbank Memorial Fund. The mission, according to a publication on the project was “to demonstrate ... whether by intensive application of known health measures the extent of sickness could be further and materially diminished and mortality rates further and subsequently reduced.”
The project, as outlined in the original mission, was deemed to be an overwhelming success and a model for other rural public health programs around the world.
By 1929, the first fully trained public health engineer had been appointed and Dr. Leverett D. Bristol became the first county health officer and director of the demonstration project, which was based in Olean. John Walrath was appointed the first president of the county Health Board. They oversaw several bureaus, or areas of health specialization: communicable disease, laboratory, statistical records and health education, among others.
In a very short time, results were statistically visible with an area medical professional finding that the death from tuberculosis, a major problem in those days, fell from about 55 cases per 100,000 people in 1929 to 25 per 100,000 in 1930.
Similarly, infant mortality rates fell significantly.
The program had developed into such a success that a Yale University report, 25 years after the start of the project, said, “the entire progress made in the United States in developing health services for rural areas owes its inception to Cattaraugus County.”
Development and progress were not always a positive side of the rural public health system, however, according to current Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins. “For quite some time, there was an opposition from medical society,” he said. “They denounced the entire program in the mid-1920s.”
Cattaraugus County’s Board of Health and its accomplishments have been recognized by governors and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Watkins said.
He said the mission of public health is not fully known by those that have benefited from it.
“Public health is that heart disease that did not develop. It is the epidemic that never happened,” he said.
Currently, the Health Department is responsible for childhood development, emergency medical, environmental health, laboratory, home care, preventative and reproductive services. The department works within communities that have limited access to services, such as the Amish community in the western region of Cattaraugus County, to ensure proper immunizations, preventive health checkups and other health-related services.