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100 days in Baltimore

It's been nearly two weeks since Baltimore was thrust into the national spotlight. Images of burning cars and destroyed buildings filled our TV screens, followed by news analysis detailing how our teens are worse off than their counterparts in Nigeria and how millions of dollars of investment haven't transformed our city.

What these stories leave out is recognition of the important progress that has been made and of the inspiring people working hard every day to build a better Baltimore.

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Since becoming the city's health commissioner in January, I've embarked on a 100-day listening tour. What I have seen and heard gives me great hope for the future of Baltimore.

I see a city that is innovative and isn't afraid to take bold action. Recently, an HIV outbreak in rural Indiana brought the needle exchange debate into public focus: The U.S. remains the only country in the world to ban the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs. However, in the 20 years since Baltimore implemented its needle exchange program, there have been 8.5 million potentially contaminated needles removed from the streets of Baltimore, preventing over 15,000 of our residents from contracting HIV and hepatitis C. The percentage of HIV diagnoses attributed to drug use has fallen from 62.5 percent to 11.3 percent. Our needle exchange vans provide not only addiction resources but also wound care and other critical medical services that many in the community rely on.

I see a city that engages in partnership across all sectors. Back in 2009, Baltimore had the fourth worst infant mortality rate in the nation. City leaders, foundations and community groups came together to establish a common plan to bring programs and services to our most vulnerable mothers and babies. Over 100 partners participate in B'More for Healthy Babies, which has resulted in the city's lowest ever infant mortality rate.

I see a city with incredible courage and incredible heart. There are topics that most in society go out of their way to avoid, such as mental health, substance addiction and HIV/AIDS. These "unmentionable" subjects wreak havoc through silence, stigma and taboo. Last month, I attended a conference called Why Women Cry. Over 1,000 people came to talk about exactly these topics and to break through the barrier of silence together. How much courage it must have taken for the founder, Rev. Debra Hickman, to organize this gathering — and how many lives has she changed?

I see a city that is resilient and resourceful and ready to do what it takes to serve our community. In the aftermath of the unrest and destruction last week, our residents saw that their neighbors didn't have food and basic toiletries — so they brought them. Our residents heard about seniors whose pharmacies burned down and couldn't get access to life-saving medications — they told us, and within a day, we found a way to transfer prescriptions and deliver and transport medications. Volunteer requests poured in, day and night, because people know this is our city and everyone plays a role in healing and rebuilding.

These are not the images the rest of the world saw that week. No doubt, Baltimore has many problems. Poverty and inequality took their roots decades ago and cannot be resolved overnight. What we can do is to address these problems from a public health lens. This means that we can't just address the heroin epidemic as a law enforcement problem. We have to talk about underlying issues such as our policies of mass incarceration, our capacity for expanded mental health and addiction treatment, and our need for affordable housing. We can't just refer to youth violence as a criminal justice concern. We have to talk about better schools and recreation, employment opportunities and family support.

Former city health commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson wrote a riveting op-ed about the 4-legged stool that's needed to tackle health disparities: housing, food, schools and jobs. I cannot agree more. We need to address health disparities as a core civil rights issue that should be kept at the forefront of every discussion.

As Baltimore looks to the future, I hope that stories that show our true character are highlighted. This is a city where so many have such big hearts and do so much. There is much hard work ahead of us, but I am optimistic that we will build up and emerge stronger than we've ever been.

Dr. Leana Wen is the Baltimore City health commissioner. She can be reached at health.commissioner@baltimorecity.gov. Twitter: @DrLeanaWen and @BMore_Healthy.

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