Reflections on the 2014 American Public Health Association Conference


(From left to right) Direct Relief's Paulina Ospina, Andrew Schroeder, and Jen Lemberger at the 2014 American Public Health Association Conference.
(From left to right) Direct Relief's Paulina Ospina, Andrew Schroeder, and Jen Lemberger at the 2014 American Public Health Association Conference.

On Tuesday afternoon over in booth 830 at the New Orleans Convention Center a continuous stream of people file past tall orange and black banners displaying Direct Relief’s role in the improvement of healthcare for millions of socially vulnerable people around the world. I’m with my colleagues Paulina Ospina from USA programs and Jen Lemberger from Research and Analysis.

A student from UCLA’s public health school stops to inform us about some interesting work she’s doing on community health improvement in California. She, like many of the eager public health students here, is also interested in employment opportunities.  A clinician from Nigeria wants to know about support for fistula care and treatment programs in her country. An older gentleman from Peru engages Paulina in spirited dialogue about her recent trip to Cuzco and the role of nonprofits in support for cervical cancer programs. Jen talks mapping and data analytics with a rotating set of professors and graduate students. Staff from a recently opened New Orleans free clinic stop to ask us how to sign up to receive free medications for their patients without insurance. We are deep in the midst of global public health’s signature annual event, the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference.

Every November, the APHA conference brings together a broad assemblage of academics, policy makers, students, practitioners and many others to share their latest findings, to learn about new directions in health science and policy, to make new connections for future projects and to celebrate the role of public health in the betterment of modern societies. This year the APHA met in New Orleans, La.  Direct Relief is on hand to present our ideas, learn from others, and staff a booth at the conference expo to spread the word about our ongoing humanitarian programs.

My presentation on Wednesday morning reviewed work we’ve been engaged in since November 2013 with Palantir Technologies and local partners in the Philippines to track health facility conditions, understand disease patterns, and support epidemiological training for the sake of recovery from Typhoon Haiyan.  Data collection on satellite devices has given way to data preparedness efforts and strengthening of the analytic capabilities of our partner network. I’m joined on the panel by academic and NGO colleagues who contribute to a broad-ranging discussion on disease surveillance, disaster relief, mobile technology, gender and network analysis.

At the peak of this year’s meeting, all six of the most recent US Surgeons General (both acting and confirmed) take the stage to tout the indispensable role of public health in the improvement of health, well-being and quality of life for Americans over the past few decades. Among them is Dr. Regina Benjamin, the most recently confirmed Surgeon General, and a key Direct Relief clinical partner from Alabama. Each one notes the huge strides made since the 1980s in smoking cessation, sexual and reproductive health awareness, obesity and chronic disease control. They implore us to stand up for the pivotal role of the Surgeon General in public support for disease control and wellness initiatives. And the crowd stands up with them in a standing ovation.

We are in very good company.

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