Here’s an update on a disturbing trend: the reappearance of public health threats that experts had believed were largely under control:

Old diseases, other public health threats reemerge in the U.S.

Most of our attention, reasonably enough, is focused on the coronavirus, but we’re probably neglecting some others of importance.

For instance, the epidemic of vaping among young persons. That lays the groundwork for the return of health threats related to tobacco use. Then there’s the resurgence in measles cases, the result of a vaccination scare. Heart disease appears on the rise after a long period of decline. And I haven’t even mentioned new strains of antibiotic-resistant “superbugs”, including, believe it or not, forms of gonorrhea for which we have no treatment.

Now that last one is especially scary, since many of the public health and education programs around STD prevention have fallen into disuse in the past couple decades. But if we don’t prevent STDs, and we don’t have an effective treatment for people who contract them– what do we do?

Experts tend to blame this on a fragmented healthcare system skewed towards developing new treatments for late-stage disease, rather than preventing its occurrence in the first place. The model of disease prevention I refer to, by the way, works on three levels:

  • Primary, which seeks to prevent disease before it occurs, mostly through education and regulation;
  • Secondary, aimed at reducing the impact of disease, mainly through early detection and intervention; and
  • Tertiary, intervention through treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

Persons with active substance disorders are often at special risk. Chronic alcoholism plays a key role in keeping tuberculosis and Hepatitis C alive. So does IV drug use, also a major source of HIV transmission. When we fail to provide adequate treatment for substance disorders, we pay a price in terms of overall public health.

When it comes to infectious disease, the US apparently falls short of other nations with respect to all three. From the article: “Those numbers illustrate the “failure of American public health,” said Cornelius “Neil” Clancy, a physician and spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. “It should be a global embarrassment.”

Trust me, it is. Most developed countries can’t understand how the world’s most prosperous nation could allow this to happen.

And it’s extra-surprising given the success the US has had with other well-known threats. Again, from the article: “Cancer death rates have fallen 27 percent in the past 25 years…The teen birthrate is at an all-time low…HIV, which was once a death sentence, can now be controlled with a single daily pill…”

So why the disparity? There are many theories, but I suspect it’s because our healthcare system has become too much driven by media attention, political influence, and money– rather than good old-fashioned expert planning, based on factual data and careful analysis of trends.

That’s a correctable flaw, if only we’re willing to put in the effort.