Established in 1912, the Robeson County Health Department is recognized as the oldest rural health department in the nation. As we approach our 100th birthday celebration, there are many stories to share.
In the early days, public health officials devoted the majority of their time to quarantining the infected and upgrading sanitary conditions to prevent the spread of disease. Typhoid fever, diphtheria, and tuberculosis were very prevalent and thousands of people became victims of these diseases each year.
From 1920 to 1943 our public health predecessors vaccinated more than 60,000 people against typhoid fever (a life-threatening illness caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi). Clinics were conducted in stores, private homes, country churches, voting booths, tobacco barns, and virtually anywhere people could assemble.
In 1925 our health department began an intensive campaign against diphtheria(an upper respiratory tract illness). From 1925 to 1943, more than 27,000 infants and children were vaccinated. The year 1959 marked the last case of diphtheria reported in our county.
In the early years smallpox cropped up frequently, occasionally reaching the epidemic stage. (Smallpox is a serious illness caused by the variola virus. Smallpox gets its name from the pus-filled blisters (or pocks) that form during the illness. Although the names may sound alike, smallpox is not related to chickenpox, which is a milder disease caused by a different virus.) No smallpox cases have been reported in Robeson County since 1931.
Tuberculosis clinics were initiated in 1920. Of the 179 persons examined that year, 29 had active TB cases. (Tuberculosis or TB, as it is commonly referenced, is a potentially serious infectious disease that primarily affects the lungs).
The Robeson County Tuberculosis Association was organized in 1940. The Association was responsible for purchasing x-ray equipment and employing a part-time x-ray technician.
Unlike some of the previously mentioned ailments, Tuberculosis is not at all considered a disease of the past. Today, our health department continues testing and treatment.
Maternal and Infant Care
In addition to the high death rates resulting from infectious diseases, maternal and infant death rates were extremely high in the early days.
Prenatal clinics were established all over the county and infant mortality (much like today) remained one of the most perplexing problems. Health centers in various towns were used for prenatal and infant care clinics. Local doctors conducted the clinics each month until around 1954. The town clinics were then discontinued and a consolidated clinic was established at the health department in Lumberton. In 1958 the clinic was coordinated by a resident in obstetrics along with students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In a report on the progress of the clinic, Dr. E.R. Hardin (who served as Health Director for 50 years — 1919-1969) noted that almost all medically indigent prenatal patients received care in the Lumberton clinic and delivered at Southeastern General Hospital (now Southeastern Regional Medical Center). Hardin reported that Robeson was the only rural county that had a prenatal program at the time – and it was very successful.
Sexually Transmitted Disease Clinic
In 1939, an intensive venereal disease campaign was initiated. Clinics were conducted in six towns each week, in addition to the health department. Blood tests, examinations and treatments were provided. Because of the great reduction in syphilis, these clinics were discontinued in all of the centers, other than Lumberton, in 1957.
In the early years preschool clinics were one of the health department’s biggest projects. Thousands of children received check-ups in the spring, so that physical defects could be found and remedied during the summer. This meant that healthier children entered the first grade better prepared to meet the challenges of school.
Health Department Receives First of Many Awards
In 1958 our health department received the North Carolina Public Health Association’s Merit Award, which is known today as the Outstanding Public Health Department Award. Noted in the award citation were the department’s public relations with various agencies, education and service in maternal and childcare, and cooperation with teaching institutions.
Now more than 50 years later, we continue to be recognized as one of the most comprehensive health departments in the state. Today’s issues and interventions may vary; nevertheless, our pride in public health remains a virtue.