When you buy food, go to work, drive a car, have a baby, attend school, go swimming, and even to go to the doctor, a public health worker has often helped make it safer and healthier. National Public Health Week (April 5-11) recognizes these professionals who through interlocking national, state, local and tribal health departments and their many community partners in health care, business, education, and other fields, create a shield against illness and injury.
The public health shield protects the quality of food and water and controls toxin and radiation exposures. It covers swimming pools, restaurants, campgrounds and hotels.
The shield protects children and adults with vaccines like the ones that eliminated smallpox and allowed diseases like tetanus, diphtheria and even measles to be nearly forgotten.
The shield responds with speed and compassion when disease outbreaks or disasters strike. Within months of the discovery of H1N1 influenza, over 1.2 million Wisconsin residents had been vaccinated, and thousands of ill received treatment from medication stockpiles. The shield also blocks disease outbreaks and supports the health system after floods and other disasters.
The shield helps pregnant women get care and nutrition and screens newborns for hidden diseases that maim and kill. It provides the birth certificate!
It protects children against poisoning, burns, and asthma. It helps protect kids from hunger—but also from obesity. It stands between children and tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. It helps young people avoid injury, unintended pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases.
The public health shield detects and attacks silent killers like high blood pressure, diabetes, undetected cancers, and unrecognized depression. It assures the ambulance squad is well-trained, and lowers the risk of coming home from a hospital with more infections than you entered with. It tracks and responds to rates of disease and injury in your community—otherwise they might grow unnoticed.
If this sounds like a magic, invisible shield, it isn't. An ounce of protection is worth a pound of cure, so complaints about its cost are rare. You may only really notice the shield when it fails.
Those who suffer the most when the shield is weak are the most vulnerable: the poor, the young, the elderly, and those suffering illness or disability. But all people benefit from public health.
The public health shield is made of people with diverse training who are passionate about prevention. Epidemiologists study patterns of illness and injury to identify prevention opportunities. Laboratory science detects and measures hazards. Environmental and occupation health help eliminate or shield hazards. Health educators and promoters help create healthy behaviors. Nurses, doctors, and outreach workers teach, vaccinate, diagnose, treat, counsel, screen, refer—and most of all, connect. These are just a few.
The highest public health achievement is forging policies that protect over the long run. Before milk pasteurization and water treatment were required a shocking proportion of children died routinely from diarrhea in Wisconsin. More recently increased tobacco taxes lower teen smoking rates; smoke-free air laws eliminate exposure to cancer-causing chemicals; laws have reduced children's exposure to poisonous lead.
National public health week is an opportunity to notice this almost invisible shield and the professionals that forge it. It is also a good time to get involved. Consider calling your local health department to discuss ways to help implement your community's Health Improvement Plan. There is room for everybody to be part of the shield, as well as to be protected under it.
-- Foldy is a state health officer and administrator of the Wisconsin Division of Public Health.