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Resonating Issues

By Sylvia Eggleston Wehr

I'm still haunted by our Fall 2001 issue of Johns Hopkins Public Health. Although it was conceived last summer and completed by Sept. 11, it covered many issues that subsequently resonated so strongly with the nation after 9/11.

The coincidences abound. Our cover story, "In Harm's Way," highlighted the dangers that public health researchers experience in their quest to save lives and improve health. I think we will have to expand our "In Harm's Way" heroes to include people like environmental health researcher Alison Geyh, PhD, who has spent weeks at Ground Zero gauging the long-term health risks to workers posed by airborne particulates. Our Prologue story on Anna Baetjer highlighted the doyenne of occupational health, a discipline central to the anthrax response as postal workers and mail handlers found themselves facing a serious new risk in the workplace. In his Et Al piece, Dean Al Sommer addressed "our chronic state of high alert," a condition that has since been ratcheted upward.

In the fall issue's Editor's Note, I talked about the difficulty of defining public health and explaining what we do to the public. (Some of the responses to my plea for assistance are printed in our Letters section on the next page.) The trauma caused by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the fall anthrax terror campaign has brought public health to the forefront of American political and cultural consciousness to an extent we never could have envisioned. (See proof of this in the New Yorker cartoon celebrating epidemiologists.) Suddenly, Americans now have a grasp of what public health is about and why it's important. The fall's bioterrorism attacks have taught us all the necessity of having an early warning system of disease surveillance and a public health infrastructure that can respond quickly and effectively to outbreaks in ways that individual doctors and hospitals cannot. With billions of federal dollars already flowing into our flagging public health system, the next few years hold the promise of an unparalleled and badly needed public health renaissance. 

In this issue's Special Report, "The Science of Security," we chronicle the School's many contributions to the national preparedness effort. Hopkins Public Health Scientists Working to Address Terrorism and the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies represent important national resources that are making an impact right now in the areas of biomedical science, public health law, vaccine research, health policy, and many other disciplines.

To be sure, we claim no extrasensory insight here at the magazine and our prescience was wholly coincidental. But in covering the world of public health as uniquely viewed from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, we necessarily write about what matters. And now in these difficult times, the work of public health and the School is only more important because, as we saw last fall, terrorism puts us all "in harm's way."