With 2016 now behind us, it is not an understatement to say it was a record year. Together, we faced persistent challenges such as eradicating the Ebola virus disease in West Africa, and addressing complex challenges such as opioid abuse and addiction, and lead contamination in our own backyard. We also faced newly emerging health threats, such as the emergence of the Zika virus across the continental and territorial United States and its devastating effect on infants—the first vector-borne disease to cause birth defects.
Crucially, a well-trained army of highly skilled public health professionals has met each of these challenges. Without their tireless efforts, consequences for the American public and others around the world could have been much worse. We’ve seen these disease detectives in the news. They are dedicated public health heroes, like the professionals in Miami-Dade County, Florida who went door-to-door with clipboards to track the spread of Zika infections, while others even now are at work sequencing a vaccine for the virus. Public health professionals stepped forward, suited up, and deployed to 50 medical centers in Liberia to provide emergency treatment and vaccinations to 1,750 individuals with a high risk of contracting Ebola. Disease detectives assisted Indiana in addressing the needs of a community facing the complex, coupled issues of opiate addiction and an HIV outbreak. They also climbed rooftops to swab cooling towers in New York to search for the source of a Legionellosis outbreak. Yet this same public health workforce now is endangered—not by the ravages of a foreign climate or an exotic virus – but by preventable reductions to public health budgets by federal and state governments.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hosts a premier public health workforce development program. CDC has built a wide variety of workforce development opportunities over 65 years that range from placements with academic and professional institutions, to inter-agency applied fellowships, to placements in communities such as those coordinated by the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE). CDC supports fellowships and programs, along with partners, to train the next generation of epidemiologists, laboratorians, decision scientists (public health economists), informaticians, and preventive medicine specialists, to name just a few.
Developing well-rounded public health professionals from many interests and backgrounds demands well-tested programs that encourage learning through experience with respected public health experts, coupled with excellent training. In addition to these opportunities, CDC offers free online learning and is the only agency in the Department of Health and Human Services currently accredited to award seven types of continuing education certifications for health professionals. Most graduates of CDC fellowships choose careers in governmental public health.
But our successes—and the health security of Americans—are at risk. CDC over the past several years has become increasingly unable to keep up with the demand for public health professionals who are prepared to meet the constantly evolving public health challenges America and our neighbors throughout the world face. Our resources are stretched thin, and we now must make difficult decisions about which public health fellowships cannot be sustained fully. CDC and public health departments cannot predict what new challenges we will face tomorrow or in the coming years. We know from experience how important it is for America to have highly trained, dedicated professionals ready to meet the next challenge. Yet the threat of proposed budget reductions persists, while federal and local costs to support these programs continue to rise. And demand for CDC’s programs continues to exceed the available opportunities. For example, CSTE’s applied epidemiology fellows program in 2016 received more than 600 applications, but the CDC budget only allowed funding for 22. If more reductions occur, even fewer applicants will be accepted for training.
Public health professionals, like the brave men and women in our military, face the enemy on the front lines. For public health professionals, that means being on the ground wherever America’s health security is threatened—at home or overseas. And like our defense security, our nation’s public health security requires sustained investments in these people who dedicate their careers to service in public health. In the end, a healthy public health workforce is the only way to ensure a healthy nation.