Thanks to advances in the biomedical and behavioral sciences and their translation into policies and practices, most people around the world are living longer, healthier lives. But whether or not this trajectory continues will depend on the investments we make today in the face of newly emerging challenges. These new threats will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations and communities, exacerbating existing inequalities. Our faculty, students, and alumni are anticipating and addressing these issues, seeking to optimize health at every stage of a person’s life, for current and future generations.
Exposure to toxic chemicals
Primarily due to Berkeley faculty initiatives, California was the first state to develop a biomonitoring program in 2006. This effort and others led by the Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry are helping to protect susceptible populations from more than 83,000 industrial chemicals currently in use in the United States. The health effects of these chemicals is largely unknown—but what we don’t know can hurt us. The School’s Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas (CHAMACOS) has demonstrated this fact. Following a cohort of mothers and children over time, CHAMACOS investigators have found an alarming association between a mother’s exposure to various chemicals and pesticides during pregnancy and early fetal and childhood development.
Rise in obesity
Some features of the recently passed health care reform legislation (Affordable Care Act) contain provisions to reduce the increase in health care costs that are now approaching nearly 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. But improvements in health care delivery alone will do little to put a dent in costs without initiatives to reduce the underlying burden of illness that the American population places on the delivery system. Central to this issue is the alarming increase in obesity among adults, and of particular concern, among children. The School and its partners are taking a multi-pronged approach to this problem, including improving nutrition and physical activity, changing laws, and implementing new technologies to help flatten and reverse the obesity trajectory.
Diminished disease solutions
It’s interesting that the antibiotics most commonly used today were discovered in the 1950s and ‘60s. This lack of innovation in drug development is one reason MRSAs, antibiotic-resistant infections, are a growing concern worldwide. Will the advances needed to combat not only emerging and continuing infectious diseases, but also currently hard to- treat or untreatable diseases such as some cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, come from the U.S. pharmaceutical industry or elsewhere? At the Berkeley Center for Health Technology, professors and students work to make sure that drug innovation is balanced with access to treatment. And biostatisticians like Professor Nick Jewell train the next generation of analysts needed to ensure that new drugs are safe for use.
Beyond our own borders, faculty and students are looking at global problems that threaten our future, such as climate change and population control. Professor Kirk Smith has been working on “two-for-one” solutions to greenhouse gas emissions problems—making a major contribution to mitigating the impact of climate change and improving health at the same time. Simultaneously, faculty and students at the School’s Bixby Center for Population, Health, and Sustainability are addressing the great need in many parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, to reduce fertility. They are working on new approaches to promoting reproductive health and supporting women’s freedom of choice.
Knowledge into action
If the above weren’t enough to keep us challenged, did you know that e-waste from discarded electronics such as our cell phones and laptops generates 40,000,000 tons of garbage annually? No one yet knows the health and environmental impact of such waste. But, as you will read, our students and faculty are “on it.” It is an example of the School’s ability to anticipate future problems and then use the most relevant tools and approaches for addressing the issue. At the same time we influence those who need to develop new policies and practices to act on the emerging evidence. What you should take away from this issue of Berkeley Health is not only that we generate great science to address challenging problems, but that we also work with policymakers and those on the ground to translate that knowledge into improved health for those most affected now and 50 years from now. As written by Goethe and quoted in every Institute of Medicine report, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”
Stephen M. Shortell, PhD, MPH, MBA
Dean, School of Public Health
Blue Cross of California Distinguished Professor of Health Policy & Management
Professor of Organization Behavior