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Ed Ehlinger

Health challenges across the state have prompted the Minnesota Department of Health to request a funding increase of $5 million to address what Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger called "emergency funding for disease response."

That request was formally made Wednesday, and Ehlinger said it has the support of Gov. Mark Dayton.

The biggest issues are the ongoing measles outbreak and increases in syphilis and tuberculosis, according to Ehlinger. State and local health agencies have spent nearly $3 million on just those issues in 2017.

"Minnesotans rightly expect a rapid and effective response to these threats, but current state funds lack the flexibility needed to deal with emergency disease threats," Ehlinger said. "We cannot continue diverting funding and resources away from other vital public health services to respond to disease outbreaks and threats.

"Significant threats to public health are becoming more frequent and more costly. In recent months, state and local health officials have had to respond to a series of infectious disease outbreaks including multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, hundreds of new cases of syphilis, and now, the largest measles outbreak the state has faced in nearly 30 years. These outbreaks come on the heels of extensive public health efforts in 2016 for the Zika virus response and in 2014-15 for Ebola preparedness."

Minnesota's measles outbreak has created headlines across the country because of its effect on the Somali community, which has shown an increasing resistance to vaccinating children. According to state data, vaccination has fallen from about 90 percent to 42 percent in the Somali community during the last decade as fears have been stoked about alleged links to autism.

MDH reports spending more than $200,000 on this issue in recent weeks, and Mayo Clinic, Olmsted Medical Center, Olmsted County Public Health and the Somali Health Advisory Council also have directed resources toward the measles issue as a precaution. A public meeting tentatively has been scheduled for May 23 to discuss this with state and local health officials.

According to a recent report from MDH, Minnesota also has experienced a variety of increases in sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis numbers are among the most serious, showing a 29 percent increase between 2015 and 2016. Of particular note is gay men comprising 77 percent of all male cases in 2016.

Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota reports a 367 percent increase in syphilis testing in 2016. Planned Parenthood said it performed more than 130,000 STD tests for HIV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and HPV last year, including 12 percent for men.

Rochester's state representatives were supportive of Dr. Ehlinger's funding request, though Democrat Tina Liebling was more enthusiastic than Republican Nels Pierson.

"This is a really serious issue, and we need to get our arms around it," Liebling said. "To have children getting sick with preventable diseases that can be life threatening is really unacceptable. We need to do our best to make sure that doesn't happen."

Pierson said he is open to the department's funding request but would like to make sure it doesn't overlap with federal dollars available for this work.

"It's something I'd have to look a little bit further into," Pierson said. "With what has been going on, that seems like a reasonable request."

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Politics Reporter

Heather started at the Post Bulletin in 2005 and took on the politics beat in 2009. Prior to that, she reported on small towns in Dodge and Olmsted counties. When not working, she is likely to be found exploring Minnesota's hiking trails with her family.