A Few Words in Praise of Public Health

Now that h1n1 has degenerated from a worldwide crisis to a party favor, people have been complaining about how various public health authorities handled the crisis, when the flu turned out to be a regular flu. While I’m certainly not keen on the paranoid behavior of Japanese bureaucrats who effectively shut down the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference (a real shame for the participants and a tragedy, as I understand it, for Japanese cinema studies scholars, who were hoping to use the conference to leverage their field in Japan), consider the alternative. With the outbreak of the virus, the press went into overdrive manufacturing fear and concern. If Public Health authorities had done nothing, and had it been a bad outbreak, they would have caught hell and rightly so. Had they done nothing and had it not been a bad outbreak, they still would have caught hell.

Public health gets much less press than hospital medicine, but it is a vitally important and underfunded part of the medical system. Because it is by its nature a bureaucracy–an entity that deals with the health of populations instead of individuals–it seems somehow abstract and ponderous. Yet public health measures, when they succeed, are to a great degree responsible for increased lifespan and the control of communicable diseases. When it fails, we get e coli poisoning in our food and cholera resurfacing in inner cities.