2016’s Top 3 in Public Health

By: Allison Hydzik

We asked Dr. Donald S. Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, what he believes were the most important news developments in his field in 2016.

Here are his top three public health newsmakers:

Zika virus

On March 29, 2016, Allegheny County announced its first confirmed case of the Zika virus, a few months after the world started to take notice of an outbreak of the virus in Brazil that was quickly spreading in South and Central America. Zika typically causes a mild flu-like illness, but when a pregnant woman gets it, there is a strong chance that her baby will have serious neurological deficits. This outbreak highlighted the ongoing public health need for better resources to quickly respond to such outbreaks. While Congress debated for months whether to authorize the $1.9 billion proposed to fight the virus, we launched Cura Zika – an alliance with our partners at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz in Brazil – to accelerate the research needed to develop strategies to prevent and treat infections, and address the ongoing public health needs.

Opioid epidemic

You can talk to almost anybody and they know a friend or a family member who has died of an opioid overdose – we haven’t seen an epidemic like this since the AIDS epidemic. Using national data stored at Pitt Public Health, our biostatisticians have found that overdose deaths have skyrocketed. It’s now the leading cause of years of lives lost in Pennsylvania and most of the U.S., far surpassing motor vehicle accident deaths. While this epidemic shares much in common with infectious disease epidemics, it also has distinct differences – forcing public health officials to forge new partnerships that include law enforcement and addiction treatment facilities in order to start to stem its spread.

The presidential election and future of the Affordable Care Act

A lightning rod of the recent U.S. presidential election, which consumed much of our nation’s news broadcasts, social media feeds, water cooler discussions and commercial breaks through 2016, was the most significant public health policy created in the past several years: the Affordable Care Act (ACA). President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to “repeal and replace” the ACA, and only time will tell how he will do that, though we do know that it is unlikely to be an easy undertaking, considering that more than 11.3 million people are covered by it. Health is a serious issue for voters – Trump swept the 16 states with the highest mortality rates, while people in 15 of the 18 states with the lowest mortality voted for Hillary Clinton, suggesting that Trump voters were expressing dissatisfaction with real problems that included shorter lives and less healthy living conditions.