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New St. Louis Health Director Wants To Tackle Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Office of The Mayor

The St. Louis Department of Health's new director plans to make addressing the city's high rate of sexually transmitted diseases a top priority.

Fredrick Echols will become the city’s new health director Feb. 19, Mayor Lyda Krewson announced Thursday. Echols is currently director of communicable diseases for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

Echols said he’ll bring his experience controlling infections to St. Louis, which for years has been among the U.S. citieswith the highest rates of gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Ongoing communication with residentsis key to preventing such diseases from spreading, Echols said.

“There’s a need to engage the community in a way that’s effective and meaningful and to educate them about what the diseases are and how they’re transmitted and how they can prevent becoming ill,” Echols said.

That includes meeting residents beyond medical settings at community events and talking to them in clear and understable language.

For example, using words like “incurable” and “curable” to describe bacterial and viral sexually transmitted diseases has helped county dwellers understand different types of infections, he said.

Echols said health problems such as STDs also are social justice issues.

“When we look at a lot of the data, even in the country, for issues such as poverty, heart disease, infectious disease issues, it’s the same population that’s typically affected,” he said. “If we’re able to have a more comprehensive approach for the community to address not just the health issues but the overall well-being of the community, only then will we be able to see a sustainable impact.”

Echols wants environmental justice to also be part of the department’s focus. Poorer neighborhoods in the city have higher rates of health problems caused by factors such as lead paint, pollution and poor air quality, he said.

Paying attention to the health problems of people in different neighborhoods will help the department focus on helping the city’s most vulnerable populations, he said.

Using data will be important should Missouri voters approvea merger between St. Louis and St. Louis County, he said.

Echols declined to take a position on the Better Together proposal, which would combine both health departments.

However, because the merger would dilute statistics such as STD rates — which are higher in the city than the county — Echols said relying on neighborhood-specific data would increasingly be important.

As he prepares to start his new job, he'd like to see more cooperation between the city and county departments, which he said became more common during his tenure at the county office.

For example, in the last two years, the city signed on to the St. Louis County Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which helps track opioid prescriptions among residents. And, in 2018, the city signed a contract with the St. Louis County health department to help test residents for STDs.

Echols replaces Melba Moore,who leftthe St. Louis health department nine months ago for a job in Cincinnati.

The St. Louis County health department is still looking for a top administrator since former director Faisal Khan leftin September, citing political tensions between the County Council and County Executive Steve Stenger. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.