Public health workers tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, yet their accomplishments are often invisible or taken for granted. Thanksgiving offers a perfect opportunity to step back and celebrate some of the exceptional public health successes of 2013. We have a lot of public health news to be grateful for this year. We give thanks for all the hard work that made these stories possible, and take inspiration as we seek to continue to promote health and well-being for all.
We wish you all a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving!
I’m thankful that in November 2013, the FDA proposed new measures that would virtually eliminate trans fats in foods. Addressing this longstanding threat to Americans’ health is an important public health victory. This move would prevent 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths from heart disease a year, according to federal health estimates.
Much as I am thankful for many things, the near eradication of Guinea worm is a great public health success. With only 89 cases reported worldwide in the first 6 months, this is a 77 percent reduction over the same time period compared to last year. We could be well on our way to slaying the “little dragons.”
Stem cell research is blazing a trail that I am grateful for and amazed by. This year, regenerative medicine has achieved a trachea transplant for a two-year old, created tiny livers, and made headway on treatment for macular degeneration. In the future, we could see historic advances in the treatment of some of medicine’s greatest challenges such as spinal cord injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. In 2013, stem cells even got a thumbs up from the Pope.
I am thankful that as a kid, I was fortunate enough to play a few musical instruments. Even though I found I was not so musically inclined, it could have helped sharpen my brain today! It turns out that music education in childhood has a lasting, positive effect on how the brain processes sound.
Scotland became the first European country to approve Nalmefene, a drug that reduces cravings for alcohol. As noted by Professor Jonathan Chick, a consultant, psychiatrist, the drug “represents a new option for treating some people with alcohol dependence by helping them to cut down their drinking when they may not be ready, or have no medical need, to give up alcohol altogether.” I am grateful to know that some people in need may benefit from having this new treatment option available.
I’m thankful for Obamacare.
As a nation, we have now put into action what we have said for many years- that we believe all Americans should have access to healthcare. Although this first iteration is notoriously imperfect, things were far from perfect before. Getting started took a very long time, but now that there is a program and process in place, however flawed, we can refine and improve over time as we learn from our mistakes.
I am thankful for the shift towards public access and transparency in sharing data from clinical trials. Ideally, I believe all data should be public access, and this represents a shift towards responsible, accountable research.
I am thankful that the uptake in HPV vaccine in the US (and globally) has shown downward trends in HPV infections among 14-19 year olds. Hopefully, the trend will continue and increase from only 1/3 of girls and fewer boys getting the full series of 3 shots. We are getting there, but still have a long way to go!
I am thankful for the US Food and Drug Administration’s decision to reject generic drugmakers’ bid to produce their own versions of the opioid painkiller Oxycontin. Similar to the first version of Oxycontin, which was approved in 1995, the generics would have been easy to get high off of through crushing and snorting or injecting the powder.
Unfortunately, because there is no generic version of Oxycontin, the reformulated version can be priced much more expensively, which hurts patients who legitimately use the drug for pain. And taking the more dangerous Oxycontin off the market doesn’t do much for those people who already struggle with opioid painkiller addiction.
So, there is still a ways to go in terms of preventing and treating abuse of prescription opioids, which is at epidemic levels in the US. Increasing education of doctors, regulation of prescription opioids, and resources devoted to addiction treatment would be ideal but difficult in the current political climate. Nonetheless, we can be grateful for the FDA’s decision this year.
And to conclude, as a reminder of all the work that remains, Joshua Brooks serves up a Thanksgiving “no thanks” to a major public health challenge.
Oh great turkey to which we kneel yearly to feast on honey-based ham and pumpkin pie (that’s what Thanksgiving is about, right?), I am thankful for the mere realization by Attorney General Eric Holder and other actors in the criminal justice sphere that incarceration policies must change.
The proof will surely be in the (bread) pudding, but to witness the Attorney General discussing the flaws in the US criminal justice system and the need to free our citizens and communities from “a vicious cycle of poverty, criminality, and incarceration” is a welcomed discussion in the realm of public health.
For many years, as California prisons overcrowded from tough on crime policies that swept non-violent individuals on the margins into the prison system like so much turkey stuffing, public health researchers and advocates like Ernest Drucker and Chris Wildeman have warned of the social and health risks posed by our approach to crime and imprisonment (see Chelsea Davis’ article on this issue for more).
To hear policymakers wisen up, propose new reforms and criticize the failed war on drugs is a step in the right direction for a criminal justice behemoth that often makes things worse by breaking up families, compounding racial disparities, exacerbating mental health problems and creating high risk health environments.
No doubt, some people must be incarcerated for the safety of society. But for the many that just need an avenue from the mistakes they’ve made under the weight of our country’s most tangible inequalities, the apparent policy shift signals a turning point in the discussion. For those caught in the system, this may be much better than any Super Deluxe Package (if you ever wanted proof that prison is a business, look no further).
If this policy shift is the turkey, perhaps the next steps forward in improving our country’s criminal justice system and, therefore, public health have the potential of being even more delicious—like the Thanksgiving leftovers smothered in gravy that you snack on for the next two weeks. We can only give our thanks… and hope.
With contributions and suggestions from: Kathleen Bachynski, Joshua Brooks, June Kim, Patches Magarro, Elaine Meyer, Ambereen Sleemi, and @One_Little_Pill
Edited by Joshua Brooks