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Preventing the Next Public Health Crisis

How public health practitioners need to get out in front of crises of public trust
October 26, 2017 | Comments

We’ve all seen statements of fear and mistrust about health authorities and evidence-based medical practices hit our social media channels. Perhaps it’s an acquaintance or family member who posts about the long-debunked notion that vaccines cause autism. Or perhaps it’s a coworker posting about “natural” alternatives to treatments for a variety of serious medical conditions, from auto-immune disorders to cancer. These kinds of attitudes and beliefs also run in and out of the news cycle when they lead to crises like the recent outbreak of measles in a Somali-American community in Minnesota.

While it’s easy to pay attention to these kinds of crises of confidence when there’s an actual outbreak, we tend to forget about them in between these high-profile events. Perhaps they simply form a low-level hum in the backdrop of our social media channels. We are still bothered by them, but we mostly go on with our lives, until we’re reminded of the problem again when there’s another outbreak that could have been completely prevented with modern medical technology.

Meanwhile, this kind of sentiment of distrust of health and medical authorities can be seen all over the world, including in lower-income countries. More recently, we have seen pockets of mistrust in India that seem to get larger and larger every few months. Last year, in one district in Kerala in southern India, officials found that 30 percent of children under age 5 were not vaccinated against measles and rubella.

While it’s difficult to isolate a single cause for such growing distrust, it does seem clear that anti-vaccine sentiments shared on social media have been fueling the growth of this movement in India for several years now. In these cases, the question always becomes: how long before we take real action? Will we sit on this knowledge in the backdrop for years and wait for a true crisis? Or will we take action early, get out in front of the problem, and prevent a crisis before it starts?

Prevention is at the very heart of the field of public health and this approach to disease should extend to our approach to shifting attitudes and behaviors that may result in health crises. We shouldn’t just address them when they’ve inevitably caused outbreaks but we should work harder to prevent them by recognizing the early emergence of these attitudes and intervening before they take root and spread. This, among other things, is the topic of our recent post on Psychology Today about preventing future public health crises. We hope you find the post useful and thought-provoking. As always, we’d love to hear from you – if you have thoughts or reflections on this topic or the piece, contact us here.

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