Google “top ten New Year’s resolutions for 2017” and many of the search results are related to health: eat healthier, exercise more, lose weight, quit smoking, and drink less alcohol. Like millions of others, I always stop to ponder life and the things I would like to change as we enter a new year. I usually draft a list of resolutions and begin the year in enthusiastic pursuit, though my odds of being successful are fairly low.
Often, by February, resolutions are broken and we settle back into our old patterns. The good news is that we are not alone in our quest for good health. Individual behavior is really only about 30% responsible for what makes us healthy or not. Though personal behavior and responsibility are important we also need a strong public health system for the promotion of healthy lifestyles and to respond to everyday health threats as well as unexpected emergencies.
If you look back over the last 100 years, major advances in human health can be attributed to public health innovations. Take vaccines for example. Without a doubt one of the most important public health achievements in human history, vaccines have helped to eradicate small pox globally, eliminate polio in the U.S., and significantly reduce illness and death from other diseases such as measles, rubella, and pertussis. Vaccines have saved millions and millions of lives.
Another area of major public health advancement during the last century is related to motor-vehicle safety. In 1966, the Federal Government passed two important acts that have had huge impact in terms of quality of life and lives saved: the Highway Safety Act and the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act. These two acts set and regulate standards for cars and for highways.
Take seat belts for example. The first mandatory seat belt use law was enacted in New York in 1984. Today, there are adult seat belt use laws in 49 States, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and among passenger vehicle occupants 5 and older, seat belts saved an estimated 12,802 lives in 2014 (NHTSA, 2016). Over time, most people have come to recognize the impact of the car seat belt use laws on lives saved and injury reduced. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passengers by 45% (Kahane, 2015) and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50% (NHTSA, 2016).
There are numerous other car safety features that have been introduced and that have had immeasurable impact including shatter-resistant windshields, head rests, and air bags. Road improvements that have certainly reduced traffic accidents and fatalities include better delineation of curves, guard rails, and traffic lights. And speaking of road safety, since the introduction of the bike helmet in 1975, helmet use has been estimated to reduce the odds of head injury by 50%, and the odds of head, face, or neck injury by 33% (Elvik, 2013).
There are so many examples of public health innovation having a positive impact on our health. The refrigerator contributed to a drop in rates of food-borne infections, warning labels on cigarettes helped lead to a significant drop in smoking rates, and window screens protect against insect-borne diseases,. Though smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, the 50 year war on tobacco use in this country is a rich example of public health at work and a major public health success. Since 1964, when the first issue of the Surgeon General’s report on Smoking and Health was released, there has been a comprehensive, multi-pronged effort to drive smoking rates down including warning labels, smoke-free spaces, a ban on cigarette advertising, and antismoking media campaigns. Over time, the result has been a drop in adult smoking rates from 42% in 1965 to 18% in 2012 (Surgeon General’s Report, 2014). In New York City, a similar, very aggressive multi- pronged approach to combat tobacco has brought down adult smoking rates to 14.3%. (DOHMH, 2016)
Public health is everywhere around us. During the last century public health innovation has fueled tremendous advances in human health and impacted populations in so many ways. As we contemplate the New Year and resolve to live healthier, we can rest assured that public health is on our side working to create a world that protects our health and safety and supports our good intentions for a healthy life.