Yale officials should prioritize public health, too

This weekend the population of Yale College will increase by nearly 50 percent as more than 2,000 public health students and leaders from 54 counties come to New Haven for Unite for Sight’s annual global health conference. Even the law school auditorium is not large enough for the keynote addresses by Jeffrey Sachs and Jim Yong Kim, among others, so Unite for Sight will have to resort to Woolsey Hall, the largest auditorium in New Haven.

In the same week, Yale will also host its fourth annual Relay for Life, which has already raised about $50,000 for the American Cancer Society; the School of Management will be hosting a high-profile conference on health care management with leading executives; Mind Matters will kick off two weeks of mental-health talks and events; and, as usual, the Yale Bioethics Center and other faculty initiatives will be hosting over 50 talks and seminars on public health-related issues.

If you haven’t gotten the message, public health activism is alive and well at Yale, and this week — National Public Health Week — is a time to celebrate that fact. It’s also time to think about how the Yale community can make an even bigger impact in New Haven and beyond.

Public health, by definition, often gets overlooked. Since public health advocates work to try to prevent problems in the first place, we are successful when you don’t notice us. You may see all the colorful posters for iDance or other fundraisers on campus and say “that’s nice,” but at the end of the day, our Yale bubble isolates us from the all-too-real presence of disease in our world.

Even when we recognize the importance of public health, we often feel we can’t do anything. Three years ago, I had the opportunity to talk with President Levin informally about why Yale wasn’t doing more with public health in New Haven and around the world. He told me frankly that health was a problem for national governments and it was not an area where Yale could make a significant difference.

Fortunately, many Yalies are proving Levin wrong. Jennifer Staple ’03, the founder and coordinator of the Unite for Sight Conference this weekend, is just one example. She started offering free eye exams as a volunteer in New Haven and turned her experience into an international NGO that has provided eye care to over 300,000 people around the world.

More important than individual accomplishments, however, is the progress that we have made as a community in making Yale a healthier place. When I arrived as a freshman, there weren’t soap dispensers in the bathroom, nutrition facts in all parts of the dining hall or subsidies for the HPV vaccine. Student activism has also encouraged Yale to make changes on global health issues, such as giving up patent rights to the HIV/AIDS drug ed4t.

There’s much more to be done, but Yalies are recognizing that we can make a bigger difference by working together. The new Yale Public Health Coalition, an umbrella organization of students interested in public health, has grown to about 400 members, and the School of Public Health has launched the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement, a new initiative to connect Yale research with the New Haven community.

All this energy around public health directly benefits Yale. This year, for example, every single one of Yale’s winners of the prestigious Rhodes, Marshall, Truman and USA Today Scholarships is working in some area related to public health. On the faculty side, health research brings in significantly more grant money than any type of research at Yale, and the Chronicle of Higher Education recently ranked Yale the best in the country for scholarly productivity in public health.

So why has the administration been reluctant to take firmer stands on public health issues? President Levin has already been a leader on globalization and climate change but has been relatively silent on issues related to health, an irony given that globalization and the environment are so closely tied to health issues. A closer look at China, for example, shows that unrestrained economic development and heavy pollution are leading to epidemics of cancer and other chronic diseases.

As administration remains slow to act, we can celebrate that thousands of other Yalies are recognizing the higher purpose that comes with higher education. Within our ivory tower we can accumulate the world’s best knowledge, but ultimately, the onus is on all of us to apply this knowledge to strengthen the health and well-being of our communities. That is what public health is all about.

Robert Nelb is a senior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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