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Health departments offer free screenings

POSTED: March 3, 2009 12:08 a.m.

March 26 is American Diabetes Alert Day. But officials at District 2 Public Health believe the issue is too important to confine to a single day, so they’re giving it an entire month.

On various days throughout March, a dozen health departments in Northeast Georgia will be offering free diabetes screenings for people 18 years and older. At the Hall County Health Department on Athens Street, the designated day will be March 12, with testing available from 9 to 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.

"We’ll have staff specifically set aside for this," said District 2 spokesman Dave Palmer. "You can come in any time during those hours, and you shouldn’t have to wait long."

The only District 2 county not offering screenings is Hart. Palmer said Hart’s health department declined to participate, citing a shortage of personnel.

Mandy Reece, a pharmacist at the Hall County Health Department, does double duty as a diabetes educator. She said the event could be life-saving because a number of people who have diabetes aren’t aware of it.

"There’s probably 5 million Americans who are walking around with diabetes and don’t know it," she said. "That’s pretty scary."

When a person’s blood sugar remains high for an extended period of time, the body’s organs and tissues begin to break down.

"No one with diabetes should go untreated, because the damage is ongoing," said Reece. "Excess glucose can affect the blood vessels, kidneys, eyes, heart and nerves, and it’s not reversible."

According to the American Diabetes Association, about 23.6 million people in the United States have diabetes, but 5.7 million are undiagnosed. Another 57 million have abnormally high blood sugar levels and are considered "pre-diabetic."

You’d think if someone had a disease as serious as diabetes, they would feel ill and would seek a doctor’s care, but that’s not necessarily the case.

"Some people have symptoms, some don’t. Others just try to ignore it," said Reece.

Such patients typically learn they’re diabetic only after they experience a crisis and end up in the emergency room.

"Unfortunately, the usual approach is not on prevention," said Reece. "We’re trying to catch folks who aren’t going to a medical provider on a regular basis."

Palmer said the screenings are not open to pregnant women, who are already tested for diabetes as part of their prenatal care. Nor are the tests for people who know they have diabetes and just want to get their blood sugar checked.

To get accurate results, patients will need to fast for at least two hours before having the test. Reece said in addition to having a small sample of blood drawn, people who come in for the screenings also will be asked several questions about their family and medical history.

"We’ll assess your risk. Gender, race and age can all make a difference," said Reece. "So even if your blood test is normal and you don’t have diabetes now, we can tell you the likelihood that you might get it in the future."

Palmer said patients with abnormal test results will be referred a physician. If they have little income and no insurance, they may qualify for programs such as Gainesville’s Good News Clinics or the Hall County Health Department’s primary care clinic.

But Reece worries that even after diagnosis, some diabetic patients won’t be getting the regular care they need.

"In Gainesville and Hall County there’s plenty of resources," she said. "But that’s not true in some of the rural counties."



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