Public health is different from health care. The latter is the range of services we receive from doctors, nurses, and others. They work to keep us well and treat us when we become sick.
Public health treats the entire population. It searches for underlying causes of disease, like contaminated drinking water, infected mosquitoes, and airborne germs. And it devises ways to protect us from them, like water treatment, insect control, and vaccination.
Thanks to public health, we can drink from the kitchen sink without fear of cholera or play outdoors in the summer without fear of yellow fever.
In fact, public health does much more to keep us healthy than individual health care. That is true even when you consider all of the miracle treatments of modern medicine. It's not that health care isn't vitally important. It's that public health is even more so.
Public health is the main reason that life expectancy in the United States has risen from 47 years in 1900 to 78 today.
You can think of public health as similar to national defense. When it works well, it's invisible in our lives, so much so that we tend to take it for granted. But if we let down our guard, we are at the mercy of forces intent on doing us great harm. In the last few years, those forces have included SARS, tuberculosis, West Nile virus, and bird flu.
It wasn't always this way. In the 19th century, Americans faced many of the same disease threats as people all over the globe. By freeing us from these dangers, public health has changed our lives.
And for all of this, only a tiny fraction of our national health budget goes to public health, about 3 percent. Without question, this is the best bargain anywhere.
Yet, many in Congress want to slash even this minuscule investment.
The continuing resolution passed in April to keep the government from closing cut almost $2 billion from two of the most important federal public health agencies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Health Resources and Services Administration. The budget resolution that the House passed for next fiscal year cuts an additional 13.5 percent. And the House has voted to eliminate funding for prevention programs and school health clinics under the health-reform law.
Could anything be more shortsighted? The effect of these cuts on the deficit would be infinitesimal. But we will pay for the consequences, in more sickness and higher costs for health care for many years to come.
Military threats would abound without strong national defense. Diseases and other health threats would do exactly the same without strong public health.
Think about that the next time you drink a cup of water.