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A constant focus on prevention, protection, and promotion
Berkeley’s School of Public Health, now in its 60th year, stands out from its counterparts across the nation

25 February 2004

Though it is no longer the only accredited school of public health west of the Mississippi, which it became shortly after its founding in 1943, Berkeley’s School of Public Health can regard its six decades of achievement with a real sense of pride.

And in fact, it does. Looking ahead to next month’s annual recognition ceremony honoring a range of distinguished “public health heroes” — a high-profile event that in 2004 is but one of several celebrating SPH’s 60th anniversary year — Dean Stephen Shortell notes how, once again this year, the honorees exemplify the goals the school has long dedicated itself to pursuing.

“At its heart,” he says, “public health prevents disease, protects the public from harm, and actively promotes health.” That, in an alliterative nutshell, is the school’s informal mission statement — one that has directed its activities and contributions over the past six decades, and that Shortell pledges will continue to provide guidance going forward.

Not all public-health schools are created equal; the majority are part of (or affiliated with) a medical school. It’s different at Berkeley, though. “We’re a very special school of public health,” says Shortell. “Not having a medical school at Berkeley has resulted in our being much more closely integrated with the rest of the campus.” He points to the variety of joint and dual degree programs the school offers in collaboration with other campus departments; the interdisciplinary research centers of which it is a key part; and the new upper-division undergraduate major in public health.

The focus on interdisciplinary research and scholarship is one of four elements that together comprise what Shortell calls “the Berkeley difference” in public-health education. The other three are an ecological approach that takes into account “the biological, behavioral and social, and environmental determinants of health”; an activist posture toward influencing both policies and practices in the public sector; and an equally activist commitment to diversity, human rights, and social justice.

Research in his field simply cannot, nor should it, seek to dwell in an ivory tower, Shortell insists. “Public health, as a field, faces many new and daunting challenges,” he says. New and re-emerging infectious diseases are among these, with last fall’s outbreak of SARS in Asia and Canada still a distinct memory and a possible future threat. Other challenges include “the threat of bioterrorism, the rising epidemic of obesity and associated chronic illness, environmental pollution, and growing disparities in health and health-care delivery by race and social class.”

Hence, in recent years, the establishment of such programs and facilities as the Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness, which, under the direction of Arthur L. Reingold, attained a high profile in the wake of the 2001 anthrax attacks and last year’s SARS outbreak; the Center for Excellence in Environmental Public Health Tracking, established to look into the links between disease and environmental pollution; and the university’s Center for Health Research, which brings together social scientists and others “to address challenging issues facing the health sector of society.”

All of these entities, along with the school’s faculty, staff, and students, make enormous contributions to public health … as do the “heroes” from beyond its hallways and labs whom the school honors each year with an awards ceremony and gala dinner. [Click on link below for 2004’s honorees.]

This year’s event will be held Friday, March 19, at the Rotunda in downtown Oakland. For information, visit http://webdisk.berkeley.edu/~heroes, phone 643-6382 or e-mail phaa@uclink.berkeley.edu. The RSVP deadline is March 5.

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Hail the healthy heroes!