Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Surfing the Learning Curve

I spent today sitting in a conference room with public health nurses, people from our state Department of Public Health, and other professionals who focus their professional lives on the surveillance and prevention of infectious and communicable disease.

As dry as this topic may seem, there is a passion that people in the public health world feel for this work, and many people have dedicated entire careers to this avenue of work. As a newcomer, I listen, watch, and feel my way through this maze of information, and I consider the many decades of human effort that have led us to this point in history.

The 20th century was very much focused on the control and eradication of communicable diseases like polio and measles. We've done a pretty good job in that arena, and vaccine-preventable diseases have been on the run for some years, at least in the industrialized world.

Now, multidrug-resistant TB, HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases have us on the run, and the fight is raging around the world. Billions of dollars are being spent every year, and philanthropic organizations like The Gates Foundation feed a great deal of private capital into some of the larger public health engines that drive the action.

For myself, I'm a very small cog in a series of multilayered wheels that turn in combinations still beyond my comprehension. While I see my actions as very small when compared with what's happening "out there", I also recognize that my interventions on a local scale---counseling a patient with TB, vaccinating a child, preventing illness---are part of a wider web that is made even more meaningful (and, in fact, effective) based on the very small, local actions of a multitude of individuals.

Prevention, surveillance and protection of the public is a year-round and frequently thankless job. Public health happens in the background, if you will, and the public and the media generally only think about such things when something goes wrong. This is understandable, and if the price of such vigilance is relative anonymity in a world made more healthy and safe by their diligence, most public health professionals would probably accept that outcome with a knowing smile.

I am still surfing on the learning curve, gleaning what I can from every day on the job, and relishing the lessons that bring new personal and professional meaning and importance to my work. It's an interesting ride, and I'm often impressed by the multifaceted nature of the field into which I have so recently stumbled.
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