Public Health Advocacy Promotes Health and Saves Lives

As we celebrate 2017 National Prevention Day on February 2, 2017, I want to applaud our nation’s advocates for public health! Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha who directs the Michigan State University Pediatric Public Health Initiative visited the Robert Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont on January 18, 2017. She gave our Martin Luther King, Jr. Health Equity Lecture entitled, “We Are All Flint: The Flint Water Crisis and Public Health Advocacy.”

In a room packed with faculty, staff, and students, “Dr. Mona” recounted her whistle-blower story and her journey to public health advocacy. She talked about how she decided, at that critical moment, to advocate for Flint’s children, explaining “If you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.”

Her message resonated with our students. Here at the Larner College of Medicine, we require medical students partner with community agencies on public health issues, helping with both urgent and chronic health challenges, and in many cases, advocating for solutions. Our goal is to teach future physicians to become advocates for their patients and their communities.

Dr. Mona’s visit was our Martin Luther King, Jr. lecture, and during her talk, she used his memorable quote: “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.” Think about this statement for a moment, first in the context of Flint, Michigan, and then, in the realm of cancer prevention.

According to the American Association for Cancer Research, more than 50% of cancer deaths in the US are from preventable causes. Others place this figure even higher, writing that 90–95% of cancer diagnoses are attributable to lifestyle or environmental factors, and arguing that “cancer is a preventable disease that requires major lifestyle changes.” Clearly, we need more prevention!

As reminds us, “Prevention is the Future.” Prevention is our future. We can advocate and educate, all to inform policy, programs, and practice. Whether scientists, teachers, health professionals, policy makers, or citizens, individually, but better yet together, we can advocate for improved health. We can collectively shine a light on the factors contributing to cancer, and then, prevent them. Less cancer in the future means less smoking, sunlight, obesity, and environmental pollutants, and more advocacy for evidence-based prevention. Public health advocacy promotes health and saves lives.