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Make public health a priority

Nationwide, communities are changing the way we think about health. Here in Baltimore, one outcome of the unrest that followed Freddie Gray's death is that it brought to light many issues that are emblematic of our nation's changing view of community health such as neighborhood design, access to health services and lead poisoning. Every day, those working in public health lay the groundwork for a healthier (dare I say the healthiest?) nation. Progress in public health becomes tenuous, however, as we continue down a path of budget cuts and unstable funding.

This year, Time magazine named the "Ebola Fighter" as its "Person of the Year," reminding us of the need to have quick-acting and prevention-focused public health plans, programs and people in place for just such events. While leaders and communities responded quickly to limit the impact on American communities, Ebola revealed weaknesses in our health system. Even as our memory of this event fades, we cannot forget these lessons. Nor can we forget about other important public health programs such as environmental health and food safety where upstream decisions and contaminants impact lives downstream.

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Still, we've seen public health programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Baltimore City Health Department and other public health agencies impacted by budget cuts. Without resources, it is impossible to support proven public health programs, let alone new ones needed to keep pace with the evolving issues in our communities or to respond to emergencies such as the riots in April ("Response, recover and rebuilding Baltimore," Aug. 2).

Here in Baltimore, we need to expand programs that address social characteristics inextricably linked to health such as education, employment, income, family support, community safety and environment. Social conditions such as these account for 50 percent of a person's health and well-being. We can't afford a divestment from our community's next generation. Our city and nation's potential to thrive is undermined when communities are not healthy and well.

Of 35 developed nations, the U.S. is ranked 34th in life expectancy at birth, just after Lebanon. Within Baltimore, people living in Druid Hill are expected to live 20 years less than those living in Roland Park. The distance between these two neighborhoods is five miles. This is unacceptable. The future of our nation's health depends on a strong and properly equipped public health infrastructure — in Baltimore, Maryland and across the country.

It's time that our nation's health is made a priority. We should demand that our policy leaders not only restore public health funding but also increase it. For Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the message is clear: Your commitment to investing in public health is fundamental to the success of people in our communities. We can and should strive to become the healthiest nation in one generation. If you agree, consider signing the pledge at https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/healthiest-nation.

Megan Weil Latshaw, Baltimore

The writer is chair-elect of the environmental section of the American Public Health Association.

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