Kansas can do better on public health, particularly vaccination rates, according to recently released state rankings. The rankings were highlighted by Kansas Department of Health and Environment Secretary Lee Norman in a presentation to the House Children and Seniors Committee last week and highlight multiple concerns for Kansas policy-makers.

The United Health Foundation rankings take a comprehensive view of health, examining behaviors, environment, health policy and health care. The organization has released health rankings every year for 30 years, which makes the rankings a useful tool for looking at a state’s growth over time. Unfortunately, Kansas has experienced the single largest decline in health rankings in America, falling from 12th to 29th since 1990. The decrease is attributable to multiple factors: cancer deaths, rates of uninsured Kansans, high school graduation rates and cardiovascular deaths.

Another area of significant concern is vaccination rates in Kansas, particularly HPV vaccination rates. Kansas ranks 49th out of 50 states in the rate of HPV vaccination rates for girls, 34th for boys and 46th for meningococcal vaccinations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends the HPV vaccine for all boys and girls at ages 11 and 12, everyone who has not been vaccinated under age 27, and some adults up to 45 who may be at risk. The vaccine protects against certain kinds of HPV that can lead to cancer or genital warts. Although HPV is usually sexually transmitted, studies have shown that getting the vaccine is safe does not make teens more likely to have sex. However, the vaccine has significantly cut back HPV infection rates and pre-cancer rates, according to data from the American Cancer Society.

Only 38% of Kansas girls ages 13 to 17, and and 43% of boys, have received the HPV vaccine. The top-ranked states have rates of 76% for girls and 80% for boys, far outpacing Kansas. Low vaccination rates place teens and young adults at risk for contracting HPV, which can cause cancer.

Kansas also has rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and violent crime, which contributed to the low overall ranking, and a low rate of dentists for our population.

However, there is some good news in the rankings. In the past two years, health disparities in Kansas have decreased slightly, and Kansas has a lower-than average disparity in health care status by high school education. The state has a lower drug death rate than many states, and a lower risk of low birth-weight babies.

The America’s Health Rankings report takes into account policy alongside behaviors. Kansans can make choices, like getting the HPV vaccine for their children, that will have a positive impact on their own families and the well-being of the state. Our policymakers must make choices, like expanding Medicaid to cut back our state’s rate of uninsured.

When it comes to making Kansas a more healthy place to live, we all have a role to play.