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Public health efforts prevent disease, save lives

by Dr. Jessica Saxe

Who is your medical hero? The doctor who did emergency heart bypass surgery on you or your parent? Or who treated your cancer? Or is it the person who developed the measles vaccine, preventing your children from suffering or dying from it? Or the people responsible for our clean water supply, which is why you don't worry about getting cholera?

It is probably the doctor who treated you in a crisis who is your heroine. We are always more grateful for dramatic rescues from the brink of death than for staying safely away from its specter.

While "ER" is a popular TV show, imagine the ratings of a show called "Preventive Medicine."

In fact, public health interventions have been responsible for most of the important health gains in the last century. As April 3-9 is National Public Health Week, this would a good time to consider them.

Life expectancy increased from 45 years to 75 years in the 20th century. While five of those years are due to curative medicine, the other 25 are due to public health measures, chiefly immunization and smoking reduction.

Injury as well as illness is the target of public health efforts. Laws mandating seatbelts in cars and requiring their use are products of determined public health advocates. Tens of thousands of lives have been saved as a result.

On Mecklenburg's front line

What is happening in our community?The Mecklenburg County Department of Public Health is attacking major current health risks with programs that address tobacco control (tobacco is the major cause of preventable illness and death in the country); physical activity and nutrition (to tackle the formidable obesity epidemic); and high risk sexual behavior.

Does prevention of disease bore you? If so, you should meet one of the front-line warriors in our community.

Talk to Priscilla Laula, who teaches Families Eating Smart Moving More. Her excitement is infectious as she describes the "I've got it" moment when people figure out how they can save money and even time (not to speak of fat and calories) by eating at home instead of grabbing the nearest fast food.

Or talk to Reggie Singleton about his work with teenage boys and men at the Males Place, which reaches a group often not served by health care and has reduced their risk of sexually transmitted disease.

Or to Jon Levin, Kate Uslan, Joy Beck or Willie Adams, whose diligent advocacy of smoke-free restaurants and youth tobacco prevention has been rewarded with a 10 percent decrease in smoking countywide, and an 18 percent decrease in the schools.

Passion for good nutrition

I once thought that dieticians were uninspiring people who ate sensible diets, wore sensible shoes, and passed their time lecturing unwilling clients about diets they didn't want to hear about. Since then I've met Kristen Shaben, Winners Circle dietician, who is passionate about her mission to bring healthier diets to schools and restaurants by labeling healthy choices.

Check out her list of 100-calorie snacks. And Tina Marie Mendieta, also a dietician, who works for school health and can be found teaching about healthy eating while disguised as the Pink Panther. Countering current nutritional choices is a gargantuan task, so to speak, but they are up to it.

Do you think the work of your school nurse is boring; that she spends her days putting on Band-Aids and doing vision exams? Spend a day with Becky Bevilacqua, school nurse par excellence. Watch as she treats the ailments of five children crowded into her health room and goes on to promote health by instructing teachers and kids with talks, handouts, and even on the playground. Spying an inactive group of kid at recess, Becky jumps in to show them how to play hopscotch or skip rope.

The goal: Healthier kids

This year National Public Health week is focusing on how communities can build healthier environments in order to have healthier kids. Our health department is partnering with Beverly Woods School to sponsor a "Walk to School Day" on April 5.

To advance the goal of a healthy environment, our community advocates suggest you:

  • Use more public transportation to reduce emission.
  • Encourage children to remain tobacco-free.
  • Use our parks, walk or do another outdoor exercise.
  • Eat five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Organize a "Walk to School Day" for your school. Contact Priscilla Laula (704-336-5392) for help.

Want help with your exercise and nutrition goals? Log on to to record your steps and pick up tips about exercise and healthy eating. Or have Dianne Thomas, the Fit City Challenge Director (704-432-1467), or Priscilla Laula come talk to your group. Either will have you off the couch, finding ways to move more, and choosing an apple over a doughnut.

So maybe it's time to reflect: Would you rather be rescued after your heart attack or avoid it? Suffer through surgery, radiation and chemotherapy for your lung cancer or prevent it?

Thank your local public health workers for their victories thus far -- and support their efforts to make us a healthier community and nation.


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