When most people think of "public health," they think of immunization programs at the county health department and health care for poor people who don't have enough money to have a private doctor.

Public health should be so much more than that.

Public health is about protecting and improving the health of the community through organized efforts. Public health doesn't just happen; society must make a commitment to dedicate resources (money, time, people) to assure everyone's health. Every cut to the national, state or local public health budget puts your health at risk.

Public health is about a safe and ample food and water supply. Our food and water should be free of bacteria, viruses, parasites and other microorganisms that cause disease. It should be free of unsafe levels of other contaminants such as mercury, lead, arsenic, dioxins, PCBs, antibiotics and hormones. Grains, fruit and vegetables in our markets should be wholesome and healthy. Meat, milk, eggs and other animal products should be free of contamination and infections such as mad cow disease and E. coli.

Public health is about sanitation. It assures that sewage systems are adequate and functioning well, so that human and animal wastes do not contaminate our food and water.

Public health is about pollution-free clean air, so that adults and children with sensitive respiratory systems can enjoy the outdoors without fear of life-threatening asthma attacks.

Public health is about disease surveillance, so if there is a disease outbreak, it is recognized quickly. Public health systems should be in place to stop the spread of an epidemic as soon as it begins.

Public health is about assuring that medications, vitamins, herbal remedies and nutritional supplements - both over-the-counter and by prescription - are safe and effective.

Public health is about prevention of disease through immunizations. For travelers and other special populations, there are immunizations against hepatitis A, typhoid fever, yellow fever, rabies and Japanese encephalitis.

Public health is about access to affordable health care for all. Prenatal care for pregnant women. Immunizations and well-child care for infants and young children. Birth control options and STD prevention for young adults. Emergency care for those who are seriously ill or injured. Care for chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Hospice care for the comfort of the dying.

Nowadays, public health is also about preparing for a terrorist attack. We must have plans to deal with anthrax, smallpox or other biological or chemical weapons.

Public health is closely linked to the health of the environment. Where there is pollution and contamination of the earth and water, disease rates soar. The climate crisis may reintroduce diseases to areas where they were once eradicated.

Most of all, public health is about education. It makes information about health and well-being widely available, giving people knowledge and empowering them to optimize their health.

The U.S. public health system is just barely adequate. The system tends to react to serious problems such as disease outbreaks, rather than focusing efforts on prevention. Powerful business lobbies will undercut public health efforts if it will reduce their profits.

The United States, as the wealthiest nation in the world, should be leading public health efforts worldwide.

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