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Defining Public Health

By Sylvia Eggleston Wehr

Given the exhilirating events of the last several months, beginning with the renaming of the School as the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and topped off with the election of Al Sommer to the National Academy of Sciences, you would think that we would all be sitting around celebrating. We are celebrating, but simultaneously we are in the throes of thinking about the challenges of communicating our new name and, most importantly, while we're at it, trying once more to help people understand what it is that a school of public health does and how critically important it is to the world's health, stability, and economic future. How can something so central to life be so darn hard to define?

A recent poll commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts shows what we are up against. When asked, "When you hear the term 'public health' what do you think of?" and given a choice of four descriptions, more than half (57 percent) of the respondents could not define public health as either protecting the population from disease or as policies and programs that promote healthy living conditions. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is generally acknowledged as the world leader in its field. But, if more than half the people don't know what that field is, we have work to do.

This issue may give you an idea why it's difficult to communicate what we do. As told in an in-depth feature, the malaria parasite, an age-old scourge that kills 1.5 to 3 million people per year, has a new foe: the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute. On a quite different front, a School-advised initiative is working to secure universal health insurance in Maryland — an effort that could be copied nationwide. How does one easily sum up a range of efforts that includes these activities?

Even more frustrating is trying to adequately articulate how unique this School's faculty is. I hope you'll keep that challenge in mind as you read "In Harm's Way" and the "Prologues" story on Anna Baetjer. The intensity of purpose and mission that permeates the School is palpable. If, as Al Sommer notes in his "Et Al" column, we are overcome by the intensities of modern communication, why isn't there a new way to describe this tradition of commitment and excellence without sounding trite or overly sentimental? If the "techies" can have a whole new vocabulary, why can't we? 

Tell me how you would describe us in a word or in five minutes — write to me, e-mail me, or call. I'd love to hear your thoughts and, while you're at it, you may have some stories of your own to add to those of our faculty described in "In Harm's Way."

Finally, we have sadly said farewell to Mary Mashburn, who served as editor of Johns Hopkins Public Health for the last several years. She was a driving force in helping us find "our voice" for the magazine and we will miss her. Fortunately for us, Brian Simpson, whose feature articles you have read on our pages, has agreed to step up to this new assignment, and I am confident that we will continue to produce a superb magazine.