Budget reductions have forced local health departments to cut programs and staff, resulting in the loss of 6,000 public health jobs last year alone, according to survey released Monday by the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO).

Nearly 19 percent of the local health department workforce nationwide has been eliminated since 2008, presenting “a staggering challenge” at a time when the country’s economic woes have increased demand for services, the association said.

With 29,000 fewer workers, local health departments are doing fewer restaurant inspections, reacting slower to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, and are not able to provide as many direct services like immunizations.

“Continued budget cuts undermine the ability of local health departments to protect the public from preventable diseases, environmental hazards and other threats to public health,” the organization said in a news release.

Hardest hit were maternal and child health programs, with nearly one of every five local health departments (18 percent) reporting that they had reduced or ended services to pregnant women, new mothers and children.

Six percent of local health departments said they had cut food safety programs and five percent said they had been forced to curtail epidemiology and surveillance.

Among the survey’s other findings:

— In addition to the layoffs, 18,000 local health department employees had to reduce hours or take  mandatory furloughs. 

— Federal, state, and local budget reductions have also reduced available services. 

— Forty percent of local health departments reduced services in at least one program area between mid-2009 and mid-2010. 

— Population-based primary prevention, environmental health programs, and clinical health services were also among the most common targets for cuts.

NACCHO executive director Robert M. Pestronk said it is increasing difficult not only to provide basic services, but that budget cuts and job losses threaten the ability of local health departments to prepare for and respond to emergencies.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials represents the nation’s 2,800 local governmental health departments.