Public health is concerned with the overall health of a community and threats to the public’s health. The leading public health issues may seem to change as time passes, but the underlying issues remain largely the same. Some of the continuing important issues are: universal access to health care, public safety in the light of communicable diseases, food safety; stem cell research, and vaccination. The impact of the environment on health and issues of drug and alcohol use are other public health issues.
Universal health care access, sometimes referred to broadly as “health care reform” has been one of a number of ongoing public health issues. Governments struggles to find a means of funding such a program. Another aspect of the issue is trying to achieve bi-partisan agreement on just what the program should include and whether individuals should be required by a mandate to purchase health insurance. Subsidies for low-income individuals and families is another consideration in the equation. When health care reform has been involved in campaign promises, as it was for President Barack Obama in the United States, that adds another twist to the picture.
Public safety in the light of communicable diseases has been has been one of the leading public health issues in the twenty-first century. International travel creates new patterns in disease transmission. In the new century, important outbreaks have occurred with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Bird Flu, Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)—also known as mad-cow disease (MCD), and when affecting humans, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD or nvCJD)—and Influenza A virus subtype H1N1, or swine flu, responsible for the 2009 flu pandemic.
Food safety has also made headlines in the twenty-first century. Major occurrences include issues with Chinese milk and Canadian listeriosis in 2008, and outbreaks in the United States of Salmonella, botulism, and E. coli 0157:H7. The Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in the United States have been numerous, with salmonella found in peanut butter, Jalapeno peppers, alfalfa sprouts, chicken and turkey pot pies, spinach and E.coli on ground beef and spinach, and at several Taco Bell establishments.
Stem cell research is a contentious public health issue because in many cases human embryos are destroyed or cloned to begin a stem cell line. Some people feel that this methodology makes the use of stem cells morally wrong, either because the embryo is not being valued for its own existence, i.e., as a human or potential human, or because they are concerned that the therapeutic cloning done to produce stem cells is too close to reproductive cloning, which they find morally onerous. Other methods of obtaining stem cells are being pursued in order to obviate these objections and focus on the research possibilities.
Vaccination to help wipe out and prevent the return of dangerous diseases is another public health issue. The reluctance of some parents to have children vaccinated—whether because they are concerned about a possible connection between vaccinations and autism or on other grounds, for example, religious beliefs—is problematic because it lies at the frontier of personal choice and public safety.