You may not know it, but there are public health people, my people, out there every day working to protect you and your family from harm. Our work is to protect you and the rest of the community from infectious diseases that can make you miserable at best, or threaten your life at worst.
Take, for example, the flu (influenza), which is at its peak of activity right now and is sickening thousands of people across the country. The flu is a serious illness that can lead to hospitalization and even death. So, what are my colleagues and I doing to protect you from diseases like influenza? Let’s take a look:
Surveillance: No, we aren’t really spies, but we do keep an eye on diseases that are circulating within the community throughout the year. We do this with the help of your doctor, hospitals, labs, and schools. When you go to your doctor with a flu-like illness, you may be tested to see if you actually have the flu. Those results will be reported to public health officials, who will report the results back to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This tells us and the CDC how active the flu is and how well the flu vaccine is protecting the population from illness. It helps us figure out both what we need to do to better protect you, and what you need to do to protect yourself.
Isolation and quarantine: Isolation is used when people are already sick. Quarantine is used when people are exposed to an infectious disease and may be incubating the disease, but are not sick yet. If the disease is really easily spread to others, we may ask people to stay home even before they get sick so they don't infect other people. In the case of the flu, people are contagious just as they start to get sick, before they even know they are coming down with something.
Public Health does not use isolation and quarantine often. We prefer people voluntarily self-isolate at home when they are sick. It is harder for people to self-quarantine, since they may not know they were exposed to an infectious illness. In public health, we use isolation with diseases like the measles (another vaccine-preventable disease that is currently in circulation), Ebola, or tuberculosis. We may ask a person to voluntarily quarantine or isolate themselves or their child, if he or she is possibly incubating or obviously contagious. Typically, this is done voluntarily, but there may be times when public health officials mandate that a person be quarantined or isolated.
Contact tracing: No, we aren’t tapping your phone line. But if you have a disease like the measles, tuberculosis, or some types of sexually transmitted diseases, we do want to know who you have been in contact with. We work hard to maintain the confidentiality of the person who is ill, but we do let contacts know that they may have been exposed to a disease and are at risk of becoming ill. We may recommend that your contacts see their health care provider for vaccinations or possible post-exposure medicines.
Monitoring exposed contacts: Once we trace a contact, we may ask them to self-monitor or we may actively monitor them to see if they develop symptoms of the infection. We may recommend testing, vaccinations, or medications to prevent illness.
Education: We find any opportunity we can to educate people about illnesses and prevention, the benefits of vaccinations (they can prevent or reduce your chance of becoming seriously ill), and the importance of practicing good personal hygiene to stay healthy.
As you can see, our work is never done. Truthfully, we always need your help! Here’s what you can do to stay healthy.
• Eat well, and balance work, play and rest.
• Wash your hands and cover your cough.
• If possible, get immunized against an illness. A yearly flu vaccination can go a long way toward preventing and reducing influenza illness and death in the community. Did you know that the more of us who get vaccinated, the less likely it is that those who can’t receive the vaccination because of medical reasons will get sick?
If you or a family member do get the flu, your health care provider can prescribe medications in the first 48 hours to help reduce is the severity of the illness. If we all work together, we can stop those nasty germs in their tracks, and we’ll all be happier and healthier because of it.