As we close 2015, let's reflect on how we harmed and helped each other's health and wellness with two Top 5 lists for the year: the first for our shortcomings, and the second for our successes.
2015's Worst in Health Justice:
5. Lead in the Water? Seriously?!?!: For about a year in Flint, MI and neighboring areas, thousands of children drank tap water tainted with lead, a chemical known to cause damage to growing brains and nervous systems. Excuses abound, but rather than argue the policies of Detroit's bankruptcy, we must ask why children are paying the price with their health. This far into the 21st century, it's about time we accomplished safe, free drinking water as a basic human right worldwide.
4. Measles Made a Comeback: In another moment that left many Americans wondering in what century do we live, a measles outbreak that started Christmas 2014 in Disneyland continued into 2015, spreading to 24 states and Washington, DC. The measles virus' "success" has been linked to low vaccination rates, where communities may have few requirements for vaccines before enrolling in school or certain jobs. Or maybe they have too many anti-vaxxers with ignorance and arrogance toward science. Regardless, the lesson is vaccines and the herd immunity they provide are effective -- but only when each of us does our part for our collective health.
3. Police Killed Over 1,100 Americans: While some see this strictly as a criminal justice problem (and some don't see it as a problem at all), police violence against civilians has an impact on the health of everyone involved. Physical and psychological trauma are carried by victims and their families, especially minorities who bear a disproportionate amount of the injustice. Tracking police-related injuries and deaths under a public health model, like the one proposed by Harvard scientists, could offer valuable perspectives on how we improve criminal justice interactions and save lives.
2. Attacks on Reproductive Health: In addition to the infamous videos made by frauds, the mass shooting in Colorado Springs, and arsons at other Planned Parenthood clinics, attacks on reproductive health rights have also come from federal and state politicians. Congress wasted time with witch-hunt investigations and plans to defund Planned Parenthood. In state legislatures across the country, a variety of laws were passed requiring doctors to manipulate and lie to patients about abortion. Against all medical evidence and advice, states are forcing women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasounds, wait 72 hours, and/or travel to distant hospitals. These policies are about misogyny, not medicine, and we must end them in 2016.
1. On Guns, Congress sided with NRA money... again: After the mass shooting at a Charleston church this past June, and again after the San Bernardino shooting earlier this month, Congress decided to maintain the ban on the CDC researching gun violence. Even if over 300 mass shootings had not occurred this year, there were still nearly 20,000 Americans who committed suicide with a gun and over 700 children who died because of guns in 2015. Rather than pass any practical gun violence prevention policy that would save lives, Congress responded to this nationwide public health crisis with moments of silence, thoughts, prayers, and open hands for millions in NRA donations.
But all hope was not lost this year. Here are 2015's Best in Health Justice:
5. On Guns, State Legislatures sided with common sense: Thanks to the advocacy of everyday Americans, state legislatures passed important policies to stop gun violence this year. In August, Oregon started requiring background checks for people buying guns from unlicensed firearm sellers and private sales. Domestic abusers were prevented from obtaining guns in 9 states. State legislators in 15 states stood up to the gun lobby and stopped concealed weapons from being carried at our children's schools. We need similarly strong leadership at the federal level, because the safety in states with strong gun laws can be undermined by guns from states with weak laws.
4. Marriage Equality in all 50 states: In June, the Supreme Court upheld the fundamental right to marriage for same-sex couples. This triumph has an impact on public health. Married same-sex couples can now obtain the same health benefits from their employer as non-LGBT couples. States can not deny same-sex couples access to Medicaid. Now same-sex couples who qualify can use provisions of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to bond with a newborn, to welcome a newly adopted child to their home, or to care for a sick family member. These are encouraging developments in the journey to reduce health disparities for our LGBT brothers and sisters.
3. Obamacare is Winning and Working: The Supreme Court delivered another health justice triumph when it upheld the Affordable Care Act's subsidies to help over 6 million Americans afford health insurance. Also this year, Alaska, Indiana, and Montana opted to expand Medicaid, and there are signs Alabama, Louisiana, and South Dakota will consider doing the same. During the current open enrollment period, 8.3 million people have already signed up for health insurance on Healthcare.gov, beating last year's numbers and proving the ACA is working.
2. Addressing the Health Consequences of Climate Change: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), if we do not meaningfully address climate change, 250,000 more people will die from diarrheal diseases, malnutrition, and malaria by 2030. Fortunately, earlier this month in Paris, at the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP 21, world leaders agreed to reduce the effects of climate change. The Paris Accords include a goal to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius (as recommended by scientists) and review mechanisms to hold countries to their pledges. Millions of healthcare providers worldwide are glad for these first steps in addressing an ever-growing threat to individual and public health.
1. The Fight Against Ebola: Just this week, the WHO declared Guinea to be free of Ebola, while Liberia and Sierra Leone are counting down days to similar declarations. Over 11,000 people have died from the Ebola virus, and there is still a long road to recovery for families and communities in West Africa. While the news of developing an Ebola vaccine is exciting, what has inspired me this year are the thousands of health care providers like pediatrician Dr. Jude Senkungu, lab technician Sidie, and nurse Catherine Koroma who lost their own friends, family, and colleagues to Ebola, but still found the resilience to care for others and keep hope alive. Resource-rich countries should have and still can do more for West Africa, perhaps by following the example of Tim Cunningham and other volunteers from around the world who summoned their courage and deployed their compassion to care for communities so different from their own.
As we approach the health justice work that lies ahead in 2016, the most valuable lesson to learn from the Ebola fighters, climate change scientists, gun safety advocates, LGBT activists, and other champions of health justice is to recognize men, women, and children as people, not problems. Regardless of our differences, we are all worthy of each other's kindness, resourcefulness, and willpower. The lessons learned and the accomplishments won in 2015 should fire up our resolve, burn off our excuses, and light the way to realizing health and dignity for all of us.