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A helping hand in health research

March 27, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Washington County residents, per capita, probably contributed more to public health research than residents of any other community during the past century, said Dr. George W. Comstock, a Johns Hopkins researcher in the county since December 1962.

The county's stable population had made long-term studies, over multiple generations, possible, he said.

In a 1986 story, Comstock said researchers like the county because it is "in no way peculiar."

"I suppose (that's) a pretty strange way to say we're pretty normal," he said at the time.

The first community-based health survey was set up in Hagerstown in 1921 by noted health statistician Edgar Sydenstricker, brother of author Pearl Buck, Comstock said.

Chosen families were visited over a period of almost 2 1/2 years in an effort to better identify what made people sick, he said.

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The same study developed methods to accurately measure the height and weight of school children to study the relationship between childhood growth and adult disease.

The research, known as the Hagerstown Health Studies, continued into the 1930s and '40s, with several different focuses, including tuberculosis and tooth decay, Comstock said.

One result was the DMF, or decayed-missing-filled index, which used teeth as a denominator instead of people. It became the standard for dental measurement.

Pioneering occupational health research in the cement industry also was conducted in Washington County, Comstock said.

There have been several cancer studies, starting with research conducted from 1957 to 1962 to determine if environmental causes, primarily radiation, were to blame for high cancer rates.

The study found, as suspected, that cancer was more common in certain areas among residents of old stone houses, Comstock said.

But the link was proved faulty when researchers realized that the homes they chose were more likely to be occupied by older people, he said.

Two cancer research efforts in 1974 and 1986 - nicknamed CLUE 1 and CLUE 2 - collected blood from about 69,000 county residents to build a serum bank and establish a cancer registry, Comstock said.

Researchers would look for possible causes of cancer by comparing the blood of people who developed a certain kind of cancer with the blood of others who didn't, he said.

Among other things, the studies showed that the human papilloma virus is related in some way to cancer of the cervix.

The first CLUE effort also showed a tentative link between cancer and vitamins, building on what in 1986 was a growing belief that people really should eat their vegetables.

The most recent health studies were done in 1986 and 1989 when the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health looked at heart disease based on information collected from about 3,000 county residents.

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