BENTON TOWNSHIP — Berrien County’s disease detectives say reducing many illnesses is elementary.

“Wash your hands,” urged Guy Miller, epidemiologist with the county health department, who presented the 2016-18 communicable disease report to the Board of Health on Wednesday. “That’s the best way to reduce any infectious disease. Some are inhaled, but most enter the body through the mouth.”

The report listed the occurrences of illnesses from HIV to food-borne illnesses to Lyme disease, and comparing rates with Michigan and Southwest Michigan counties.

The health department contacts hospitals, doctor’s offices and private laboratories to keep track of the nearly 100 reportable diseases that can have a significant impact on public health, Miller said.

When a Berrien County resident is identified as having one of these diseases, the health department follows up with them personally to see if they are feeling better, and whether they have been anywhere that the illness could have been spread.

In the case of food-borne illnesses, investigators keep track of cases to find out if the victims have eaten at the same restaurant.

The department’s sanitarians inspect every restaurant in the county twice a year, and can return if there is a concern about a particular establishment, Miller explained. Berrien County sees about 51 cases of food-borne illnesses per 100,000 residents, which is higher than the state rate. Summer is the most common time for these illnesses.

There are more than 250 food-borne illnesses, but Miller’s report focuses on the most prevalent. Campylobacter is the most common food-borne illness, and you usually get it from eating contaminated food, especially raw or undercooked poultry, as well as contaminated water. Salmonella is the second-most common illness, and is caused by ingesting food from infected animals or food contaminated by feces, raw or undercooked eggs and poultry and unpasteurized milk products.

E. coli is an illness that can be caused by swallowing water contaminated with feces. Sanitarians monitor 14 beaches for the bacteria. In 2018 the county had six cases reported.

Berrien County has a higher rate of Lyme disease than the state as a whole because of its dunes and woods that harbor the black-legged ticks that carry the illness. Last year the county had 30 cases reported, and expects the same number this year, Miller said. Lyme disease can cause flu-like symptoms and muscle cramps, and in more serious cases can lead to neurological problems.

This summer the health department has a tick surveillance program, with an intern checking parks for the insects. The department also monitors mosquitoes and is on the lookout for the species that carries West Nile virus.

There is a simple way to avoid exposure to Lyme disease. Showering after being in an area that might have ticks is an effective method, since it takes 24 to 48 hours for the disease to be conveyed, Miller said.

Vaccinating children is a way to avoid contracting and spreading illnesses such as measles, mumps and chicken pox, experts say. The Centers for Disease Control has a target of a 90 percent vaccination rate to prevent outbreaks. Berrien County’s rates for several illnesses are close to this benchmark. Miller said that schools report vaccination rates that indicate that large outbreaks are unlikely.

The full report is available at: http://bchdmi.org/Archive.aspx?AMID=77.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak