“Public health is a quiet field,” says Marie Harvey. “It’s easy to ignore because it’s often misunderstood.” Marie heads up the college’s Department of Public Health with 350 students, more than 2,000 alumni, and 17 faculty members, each dedicated to improving the health of people and communities worldwide. They include Niloo Bavarian, a master’s student in health promotion who interned at OSU Student Health Services designing education programs to prevent alcohol abuse among students; Melissa Plantenga ’00, who helped solve the mystery of the nationwide E. coli outbreak traced to spinach; and Brian Flay, preeminent OSU scholar and professor conducting research on risky behaviors of youth.
Public health focuses on understanding avoidable sources of disease and death. “Of all the fields that relate to health practice, public health is the only one that focuses primarily on prevention,” explains Marie — “the prevention of disease and practices that can ravage communities, generations, and cultures.” Public health practitioners are addressing HIV/AIDS, obesity, smoking, drugs, and unsafe sexual practices. They are finding solutions to environmental health and safety challenges in communities and workplaces, shaping the way that care is provided for elders, addressing the disparities in health care for poor and minority groups, and developing global health programs. They are preparing for and responding to public health emergencies that result from tsunamis, fires, and famine, assuring that health care is available and diseases don’t spread. They are educating communities, helping to pass laws, and conducting research. They are out to save the world.
“But the successes of public heath are largely invisible,” says Marie. “Public health educators, advocates, and mangers are there when an epidemic breaks out or a natural disaster occurs, but most of our work is behind the scenes, crafting prevention strategies and policies for the conditions we can avoid. Quoting Kenneth Warner, dean of the School of Public Health at University of Michigan, Marie says, “Our most important triumphs are failures that never occur.”