ATLANTA -- Red tape might be just as hazardous to public health as rubella or syphilis.
But doctors, nurses, lawmakers and even police learned Friday that a little partnership might just help them cure their unhealthy communities.
In Coffee County, a virtual island in rural south Georgia with high crime and drug use, a little teamwork between the local hospital and the health department has squelched syphilis and brought down baby deaths.
The county hospital began to hand out coupons to women in the federal Women, Infants and Children program while they were still patients, instead of sending them home to apply for them later.
Health workers were sent into crack houses to bring in condoms.
Coffee County sheriffs tested people they arrested for syphilis and nurses were dispatched to schools throughout the county's 6,000-student system. The county even created a health council that meets regularly.
The result: The county's 84 cases of syphilis in 1990 fell to 9 last year. The rate of baby deaths dropped from about 20.9 deaths per 1,000 infants between 1986 and 1990 to a rate of 11.4 between 1992 and 1996.
"We still have a ways to go, but we decided to work together and tackle one problem at a time," said George Heck III, president of Coffee Regional Medical Center, the county's only hospital.
"We are at the point now where we are going to tackle teen pregnancy with the same energy," Heck said.
Coffee County's story is one of a handful that leaders from 50 Georgia communities came to hear at the two-day conference in Atlanta called "A Summit for a Healthy Georgia: Partnerships for Creating Healthy Communities."
"Think outside the box," health care expert Leland Kaiser told the group, adding that communities shouldn't let political jurisdictions and other barriers prevent them from being innovative.
In the Savannah area, hospitals and health departments zeroed in on a single zip code to improve health care for 27,221 residents, 43 percent of whom lived below the poverty level.
Their partnership has resulted in child nutrition, mental health and child nutrition programs.