by Scott Becker, MS, Executive Director, APHL
Last week was National Public Health Week. Yup, another one of those designated “weeks” that we celebrated; yet another great American institution and last week it was our turn. Maybe no one cared about public health week except those working in this really misunderstood and almost invisible field. In fact, sometimes I wonder if it really is a field on its own or if it is a host of professions that come together towards a common goal of improving the lives of everyone. Whatever it is, I’m in it. I wasn’t trained in it; in fact, I have business degrees. But my whole life I’ve worked in this… goal, or field, oh…whatever.
This week is just a regular week but public health work continues. Just because Public Health Week is over doesn’t mean public health work ends. So why should you, the average American, care about public health the other 51 weeks of the year? I think it boils down to this. You want clean air, clean water, and food that isn’t full of bacteria or germs. We do that. You want your kids to not get sick (unless you really like staying home with a house full of kids with the green elevens*) so we teach them to sneeze into their sleeve and wash their hands (a lot). When your kid was born, they had a tiny drop of blood taken from their heel and it was tested by a public health lab that told you that your kid did/did not have a congenital disorder for which there was a treatment. When a newly emerging disease came close to our borders, it was public health that quickly figured out what it was (remember SARS?) and then got tests deployed so that we could tell you what was happening in your community. Same thing for H1N1 influenza – public health was there to help you decide what was best for your family – whether to send the kids to school, to avoid crowds, or that the flu was subsiding and the all clear was sounded. Anyone remember what happened right after 9/11? Anthrax in postal system. Public health dealt with that too – and all those “white powder” events you read about…yup, that’s us too. We’re in every community, working for you every day. You just don’t know it but you definitely feel it.
It’s tough being in public health these days. Lots of budget cuts to local and state governments have meant that there are fewer of us now working harder for you. Have you read that government is bad? We have too much of it, etc… I disagree. Government is good and it’s what folks want and demand to have around when they need it. Like this week, it was the government who was there to see if imported seafood is coming from radioactive and contaminated waters. Same thing with the gulf coast seafood after the Deepwater disaster. Yup, it was public health doing seafood safety tests. “Oil with that shrimp, sir?” Guess what – it never was a problem because public health tested it and assured us that it was safe.
So Public Health Week is over. With all the talk of a shutdown of the federal government in the past few weeks, the uncertainty of the nuclear crisis in Japan, did anyone have any time to celebrate such an important week? Maybe not, but I hope that you can take a minute to think about the things that make America strong – beginning with our health. And then thank a public health professional any week of the year.
(*Refers to a child’s runny nose… think about it.)