Public Health Column: Making change, one crisis at a time

Tim Foley gets a poke in the arm as he receives his flu shot last week at the Veterans Memorial Building. File photo by Nick Lovejoy

Recent studies show that where you live, your income, your level of education, your race and access to health care can make as much as a 15-year difference in how long you will live. Equally shocking is that studies show even wealthy, highly educated Americans with access to quality care suffer a health disadvantage to peers in other high-income countries.
Enter public health. Public health is a collaborative of people, communities, institutions and organizations working to ensure conditions that give everyone the opportunity to be healthy. Our vision is to create the healthiest nation in one generation.
This vision can only be realized when we make healthy choices a societal norm. This means improving everything that impacts our health—from housing, education and income to community design, transportation and our environment.
The first week of April was National Public Health Week, which is a health event backed by the American Public Health Association (APHA). This event aims to highlight public health achievements and also improve the general health of the American people, by educating the public about various health issues and how they can live longer lives.
Through health education, health awareness campaigns can reduce the effects and consequences of many health conditions and diseases by preventing their onset or tackling any symptoms or issues early on.
The 20th century saw many advances in public health—such as fluoridated water, motor-vehicle safety and tobacco control. High among those achievements is the role immunizations have played in reducing the suffering associated with vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and polio. A 2011 study estimated that fully immunizing each year’s cohort of children prevents 42,000 deaths and 20 million cases of disease, saving $69 billion in societal costs.
Do we remember polio? In the early 20th century, polio was one of the most feared diseases in industrialized countries, paralyzing hundreds of thousands of children every year. Soon after the introduction of effective vaccines in the 1950s and 1960s, however, polio was brought under control and practically eliminated as a public health problem in the United States. In 2013, polio affected 416 people, down from 350,000 cases in 1988 worldwide due to vaccination efforts and early detection of cases. Public health officials believe that polio will be completely eradicated by 2018.
Let us look at other ways public health has contributed to healthy changes in our society. Take, for instance, smoking. Fifty years ago, smoking was not only acceptable, but highly encouraged. If we talk to someone growing up in the 50s, they’ll tell us that smoking was a “rite of passage” to becoming an adult, no matter a person’s education, socio-economic background or race/ethnicity. Smoking was a part of life. In 1964, with the support of the United States Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, which demonstrated the relationship between smoking and cancer, public health and health care partners worked diligently to reduce smoking prevalence. Fast forward 50 years to 2016. We would be amazed to walk into our doctor’s office, as store or restaurant and see someone smoking.
Another public health issue for San Benito County is childhood obesity, which is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, and respiratory disease. Diabetes and obesity rates have risen dramatically in the last several years, and we are currently facing a diabetes tsunami that has the potential to devastate an entire generation.
Public Health is working diligently to improve the health and well-being of San Benito County residents, specifically underserved and low-income residents. We are working with our schools, retailers and local policy makers to create changes in health culture. By increasing physical education opportunities in school aged youth we instill healthy lifestyle habits that will shape their physiology. By creating more accessibility to vegetables and healthy foods in schools and at grocery check-out lanes we, along with our partners, aim to change the current nutritional landscape of San Benito County.
These are just a few examples of public health’s impact on our society. Public Health, along with its many partners, is working hard to ensure everyone has the opportunity to be healthy. Join us in celebrating National Public Health Week 2016 and become a part of the movement for the healthiest Nation by 2020.
Sam Perez is a program manager for the San Benito County Public Health Department.

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