Putting the Public in Public Health

This Op-Ed was originally written for the Human Biology Core, as part of the Writing in the Major requirements.

Swine flu is over - are you still alive?

From across American and across the world, panic and fear took hold of the public at a potentially dangerous foe too small to see. Bold headlines splashed across the cable news networks, constantly juxtaposed with images of crying children leaving their closed school and panning shots of the grittiness of Mexico City where the whole thing started.

Amidst the sheer chaos that was the news response, people around the world were hearing their local leaders give conflicting reports about what to do and don't. Some countries, like Russia and China among others, banned the importation of pork from North America. Influenza cannot be transmitted from pork products. Close to home, scores of schools shut down to prevent the spread - with varying levels of necessity.

The gap seen between the real-world horror show that emanates from the upper digit channels and the everyday lives of American citizens is where public health education must step in. With global interconnectedness comes the ever-present danger of new infections and public health emergencies. Educating the public and especially local political leaders during a crisis is ineffective. Public health needs to improve its relationship with the very people its name invokes.

Public health as a true discipline came into its own in the 20th century with population-wide immunization and vaccination programs that has led to an increasing change from acute to chronic illness. The eradication of smallpox became a cause célèbre within the community and soon proved successful. Today, the field has expanded to include more than thirty schools of public health with thousands of graduates.

Today, public health can no longer work from behind the scenes. The wide-scale terror that a microbe can bring to a nation can quickly cause enormous economic damages - not to mention further stresses in an overworked population. It is imperative that the communication coming from government officials and public health officials is clear and of one voice.

The problem is not that Americans do not respond - quite the contrary. A poll conducted by the Red Cross showed that a majority of Americans increased their handwashing and strong numbers covered their coughs and used hand sanitizer. On this front, public health was indeed successful.

The problem was that the chaos among the population was reflective of the fragmented views of public health officials. When an unknown strain, public health officials are left without a game plan, a situation on full display throughout the saga. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said, "No one can say whether this is just the calm before the storm." Accurate? Yes. Clear? No.

How should the country handle these issues? Additional education would be good, if over-the-top. Instead, a focus needs to be placed on the government officials that provide the local signals that can inflame or tame a public's perceptions of a crisis.

This is not to say that public health officials have not done anything. The Association of Schools of Public Health has recently pushed two related campaigns to raise pubic health awareness - "What is Public Health" and "This is Public Heath." While their flashy photos and suave designs may attract some attention, these websites alone will not break the awareness gap among the general public.

In its place, a sort of held-breath terror gripped the nation. Will my child be the next victim? Should I cancel that dinner party? What about grandma in New York? Pandemics can be enormously devastating as seen in 1918, 1956 and 1961. Nonetheless, few infections rise to such catastrophic levels. If a basic understanding of public health were held by government leaders and others, the mass panic that can sweep the nation in a wildfire of economic turmoil can be averted.