If you're like most people you experience gratitude many times each day. Most often, we're thankful for things that happen -- from the simple act of someone holding a door for you to experiencing the recovery of a loved one following an illness. You probably say "thanks" so many times in a day that you can't recall each specific instance.
While it's easy to be thankful for kind acts, good experiences, and things that bring joy and satisfaction into your life, it's harder to recognize and be thankful for things that don't happen. Such it is with public health -- a discipline whose achievements are often notable for what it prevents. When public health is working, bad things don't happen -- and as a result public health programs tend to be invisible. As we celebrate National Public Health week, let's take a moment to be thankful for some of the many "invisible" achievements of public health:
Clean indoor air. Some of us are old enough to remember how unpleasant it was (even when we ourselves smoked) to sit next to burning cigarettes in restaurants, on airplanes, and in other public spaces. We can be thankful for public health campaigns and policies that have inspired millions to quit smoking and prevented millions more from acquiring this deadly addiction.
Traffic safety. We buckle our seat belts, put our children in car seats, don't let friends drive drunk, and cross in marked crosswalks. We do this not just because we care, but also because there are enforced policies that encourage us to be safe. They work -- these policies have all contributed to substantial decreases in alcohol-related car deaths, fewer car accidents among young people, and fewer pedestrian deaths.
Sanitation. While it's great to say thanks to someone who helps us locate a nearby bathroom, how grateful are we for the reality of public restrooms in the first place, to say nothing of modern sanitation systems that prevent the spread of deadly diseases like cholera, dysentery, and other communicable diseases that afflicted previous generations in this country, and continue to plague so many around the world?
Food safety. We probably worry more about getting fat than about getting "food poisoning." We can be grateful that our food is inspected, stored in controlled temperatures, and pasteurized. If an illness breaks out we have systems for tracking and stopping food borne illness.
In these ways and so many others, public health systems, services, and professionals are quietly protecting our lives and the lives of those we love: our children, parents, grandparents, and friends.
So, next time you use a public restroom, wash your hands, dine in a smoke-free restaurant, fasten your seatbelt, or take a walk on a neighborhood trail, call to mind the truly remarkable public health infrastructure that brings these things into your life. Your awareness is the first step to ensuring that public health advances like these continue to benefit the lives of our children and grandchildren.
Oh, and just for the record, thanks, public health.
Sue Curry is the Dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, which recently launched a "Thanks Public Health" (#thxpublichealth) social media campaign. Check it out and contribute your own thanks message at www.facebook.com/UIowaCPH and @UIowaCPH.