Public health defies easy descriptors common to other fields of medicine, like “doctor for adults” or “doctor for kids.” Consequently, the public may not know the many ways that public health impacts our lives on a daily basis. As we approach National Public Health Week 2015 (April 6-12), I would like to take this opportunity to describe what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.
Public health doesn’t deal with a single organ system, like cardiology or nephrology, or even a single patient, like internal medicine. For public health officials, the community is the patient and the goal is to improve lives through the prevention of disease and the promotion of health.
The CDC Foundation describes public health as “the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention and detection and control of infectious diseases.” The World Health Organization defines “health” as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
To get an idea of the impact of public health, consider that the average life expectancy for Americans has increased by about 30 years over the last century. More than two and a half of these extra three decades of life can be credited to public health initiatives. Technical medical advances, meanwhile, account for fewer than four years of this expanded lifespan.
Public health achievements include the introduction and widespread administration of vaccines. Vaccinations have resulted in the eradication of smallpox; the elimination of polio in the Americas; and the control of measles, rubella, tetanus and diphtheria in the U.S. and around the world. It was public health that responded swiftly and expertly to the (preventable) measles outbreak that started in Disneyland late last year.
Equally important in controlling infectious disease is sanitation. Cholera is a bacteria spread by food or water contaminated by the feces of ill persons. Outbreaks of cholera occurred regularly throughout the world for hundreds of years, decimating populations. Water purification and sewage treatment systems have eliminated cholera outbreaks in the developed world.
In addition to an increase in quantity of life, public health has significantly impacted the quality of life for nearly everyone. From efforts to get people moving to initiatives requiring restaurants to publicize nutritional information, fighting obesity may be the next frontier for public health. Public health encompasses preparedness for natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods and human-made disasters, such as bioterrorist events. It ensures that our food is safe to eat and our workplaces are smoke-free. It adds fluoride to our drinking water and inspects the restaurants we frequent. It addresses the inequities that exist in health indicators between different ethnic groups. It presented a resolution last month to cease the sale of tobacco products in Hollister pharmacies. In short, public health quietly affects us on a daily basis, ensuring that we maximize our opportunities for living safe and healthy lives.
This year, you can participate in National Public Health Week by visiting our traveling health fair at Mars Hill Café on Tuesday afternoon. Wave to the “living billboard” staff dressed as fruits and vegetables in downtown Hollister on Monday afternoon. Come to the health department on Friday to learn about CPR and healthy beverages. Please also use this week to acknowledge San Benito County’s dedicated public health staff—the team of nurses, educators, environmental health specialists, and others that work behind the scenes year round to help you, your family, and your community be as healthy as possible.
Dr. Anju Goel is San Benito County public health officer.