Celebrate public health week with April 4 fair

March 31, 2009|By EARL STONER

Public Health Week is April 6-12 and the theme for 2009 is "Building the Foundation for a Healthy America."

What is public health and why celebrate Public Health Week? Although most people are familiar with medical care through their experiences at a hospital or doctor's office, public health is largely invisible to the average person.

To celebrate Public Health Week, the Washington County Health Department will sponsor a health fair on Saturday, April 4 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 1302 Pennsylvania Ave. (between North High and Western Maryland Center).

Locally, public health is of special interest because Washington County has a remarkable history of making many contributions to public health.


Public health is the health of the community. While medical care focuses on making a sick person well, public health focuses on improving the health of the community at large.

How can that be done? By providing clean drinking water, basic sanitation, clean air, safe food preparation, and vaccinations. More than 80 percent of the 30 years in life expectancy Americans have gained since 1900 is due to these basic steps.

In the 20th century, the primary challenge confronting public health was control of infectious diseases. In 1900, the three leading causes of death were pneumonia, TB and intestinal infections. Due to great advances in the last century, infectious diseases are no longer the leading causes of death, although some, such as HIV, remain a potent threat.

Today, chronic diseases have replaced infectious diseases as the leading causes of death. The top three today are heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Moreover, about 40 percent of early deaths are attributed to smoking, obesity, inactivity, violence, alcohol, drugs and motor vehicle injuries. Even if every American had access to excellent medical care, only a small fraction of early deaths could be prevented.

Inadequate health care accounts for only 10 percent of early deaths, even though enormous resources are committed to health care. Behaviors contribute more to health than genetic predisposition, socioeconomic status or environmental factors.

The challenge is to reduce behaviorally-associated diseases and early deaths. For the first time in history, the keys to a healthy life and community are within our control as never before.

Decisions regarding smoking, drinking excessively, using illicit drugs, driving recklessly, wearing a seat belt or engaging in violence determine to a large extent not only individual health, but the community's health. Our youth are now more likely to die as a result of violence, drug use, or motor vehicle accidents than of infectious diseases.

Washington County's considerable contributions to public health began with the establishment of the Coffman Research Center.

Made possible by the contribution of philanthropists Andrew and Gladys Coffman, the center stood on the site of the current Health Department's main building on Pennsylvania Avenue. Our county's contributions were the result of county residents participating in research projects by the National Institutes of Health and Johns Hopkins University.

In fact, Washington County has produced more research findings that have advanced public health than virtually any other community in the country.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy is the Hagerstown Health Study that occurred in the 1920's. This study documented for the first time ever the extent of illness in a community. Previously, no one knew how common illnesses were. It was just assumed that "everyone got the flu" or "injuries just happen." The local study was the forerunner of today's National Health Interview Survey, which publishes important data on health insurance coverage, risk factors for disease and health status, all used to establish public health programs and priorities.

Other examples include the finding that being overweight in childhood is associated with high blood pressure and reduced life expectancy in adulthood. A dental index now used nationwide to record decayed or missing teeth was developed from Washington County school children.

Interestingly, a bereavement study found an increased rate of death among surviving spouses, particularly widowers. Other advances are under way today, thanks to the participation of the Washington County community.

The Health Department also has a role in public health. Its primary purpose is to promote the health of the community. Some services are well known, such as provision of flu shots and restaurant inspections.

Others are less known, such as the review of building permits to ensure adequate water and sanitation, and to check for possible lead or asbestos hazards. Additional services include communicable disease investigations, addictions and mental health treatment and the provision of school health services, among many others.

We celebrate Public Health Week because of the historic contributions and future possibilities of Washington County. See you on April 4.

Earl Stoner is health officer of Washington County.

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