Public health more important, underrated than ever

By Will Scheff

Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health would have shown “Epidemic!”, a video that… Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health would have shown “Epidemic!”, a video that simulates the outbreak of and response to infectious diseases, if anyone had bothered to show up Thursday afternoon.

Maybe they were all home with the flu.

But Associate Dean for Student Affairs Sandra Quinn and Center for Public Health Practice project coordinator Molly Eggleston still had a lot to talk about. The issue of public health “could never be more timely,” Quinn said, as outbreaks of SARS and other contagions threaten the world.

The lack of an audience underscored Quinn and Eggleston’s assessment that public health is an issue that the public knows next to nothing about.

Differing from the medical field, public health focuses on the prevention of conditions that allow diseases to spread rather than treating their symptoms.

“We can’t survive as a healthy world with just medical care, which is where we put most of our resources,” Quinn said.

Seatbelts, restaurant inspections and childhood immunizations are all products of public health policy recommendations. So, even if they don’t realize it, people are affected by public health issues every day.

Quinn quoted former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Coop, who said “health care is vital to some of us some of the time; public health is vital to all of us all of the time.”

“Public Health is a global issue,” Quinn continued. “A disease can emerge from rural areas and spread around the world in hours.”

“Diseases don’t recognize geo-political boundaries,” Eggleston added, referring to China’s delay in reporting the SARS outbreak and how worldwide surveillance is needed for public health officials to contain such epidemics. “We need a public health Interpol.”

With international concerns like SARS and bioterrorism, the public health field is expanding at an incredible rate, Eggleston explained. It’s not as dramatic as the computer boom of the ’90s, but significant growth is seen in funding and the number of jobs that need to be filled.

Many of those jobs go unnoticed by the public; jobs like EIS – standing for Epidemic Intelligence Service – officers, often called “virus hunters,” who were scouring emergency rooms across the country on Sept. 11, 2001, searching for symptoms of bioterrorism. These officers also conduct “contact tracing,” as they try to backtrack infections all the way to the original source.

Developing countries give rise to the globalization of health problems, Quinn said. Often, where the natural environment is disturbed, such as when a dam is built, infectious diseases are released.

“We thought we had things under control, until things like HIV, Ebola, and SARS emerged over the last 20 years,” Quinn said. “Viruses have jumped species from animal to human. What we face more and more is, ‘how do we communicate the risk without alarming people, and in a situation that changes minute to minute?'”

Eggleston described how discrimination occurs with new epidemics, such as how restaurants in Chinatown in San Francisco, for instance, are reporting a drop in business following the SARS outbreak, or how gays were regarded during the first few years of AIDS.

“It’s an unfortunate reaction arising from fear,” Eggleston said. “That’s where public health comes in – to help people understand the facts and give them perspective.”

GSPH now offers an early admissions program to undergrads, who can take graduate-level classes in their senior year and finish them one year later, instead of two.

And the GSPH also jumped up two places in the national standings to No. 11 out of 31 accredited schools of public health, according to the U.S. News and World Report. It remains No. 3 – and the No. 1 public college – for research funding from the National Institute of Health.