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April 2-8, 2018 is National Public Health Week.

Ensuring that our public is healthy is one of the critical missions of the health care profession. As we have seen from the opioid crisis and the flu this season, public health crises take away promising, influential lives that can make a difference in this state, country, and world.

National funding to public health resources and research is being cut, leaving opportunity for infectious diseases and other public health issues to potentially threaten the livelihood of millions of people in the United States.

Recently, public health has faced a turning point. The number of natural disasters is increasing, and the damage from them, too. Diseases that we have been vaccinating children for are re-emerging in those who are vaccinated and those who choose not to be. The opioid crisis and other issues with drugs in our country are killing family members, friends and loved ones. Now more than ever, it is important to see the significance of public health and how the resources provided are impacting communities around us.

The Wolf Administration, working with the Department of Health, is committed to improving public health across the state of Pennsylvania.

Gov. Wolf’s recent announcement on the new initiative to expand high-speed internet access to all is an important step in providing opportunities to people who live in rural areas. Access to internet and technology is a key measure of health in a community.

The Department of Health is also working to help improve the public health in rural areas through several other methods. In these areas, our goal is to transform health care delivery, to improve the overall health of the population and to create health care services that match the needs of the community.

Examples of this include increasing access to oral health providers and behavioral health providers, reducing prescription opioid use and increasing opportunities for physical activity.

In our urban areas, we are working to assist local partners with the very different issues their communities deal with. Some work in these areas includes eliminating food deserts, reducing gun violence, and providing drug treatment centers for those who have a substance use disorder.

In addition to the department’s work to enhance public health, each person has their own responsibility to their loved ones and their community to take steps to enhance public health.

One way this can be done is by getting children vaccinated. Vaccines are safe, effective ways to reduce the likelihood of getting a number of serious, life-threatening diseases. The more people who are protected against these diseases, the better chance we can completely eradicate them from our country.

This includes the flu vaccine, which provides protection against several strains of the flu and should be received each year. Even if the flu strains in that flu season do not match the vaccine, the vaccine can still lessen the severity of the flu, and decrease the length of time you have the flu. Coming out of one of the worst flu seasons in recent years, it is imperative that people realize the importance of getting a flu vaccine.

Another facet of public health involves public health preparedness. In Pennsylvania, we are accustomed to snow storms, flooding, severe summer weather, heat waves, prolonged cold temperatures, and other disasters. Do you and your family know what you would do in any type of disaster?

Do you have an emergency kit, which provides food and water for three days should the power go out? Do you have a reunification plan for your family should a disaster occur while you are separated? How will you reach your loved ones during an emergency?

Part of public health is caring for those who have special needs during a disaster. We have to make sure that we are taking care of those who do not speak English as their first language or need a wheelchair for mobility.

Yet another form of public health is to reduce the number of smokers in our community. Statistics prove that not only does smoking affect the health of the smoker, but second-hand smoke is a real public health threat.

Public health involves taking care of each Pennsylvanian, no matter their race, age, sexual orientation and gender identity, ability or socioeconomic status. Public health involves the health of every single person.

As the Secretary of Health, I know that our staff is working tirelessly each day to improve public health. Join us and play your part in helping make public health a priority in Pennsylvania.

Rachel Levin is Secretary of The Pennsylvania Department of Health.

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