The theme for Public Health Week 2018 (April 2-8), Changing Our Future Together, is an interesting one, given that San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) recently celebrated its 70th anniversary by looking back over the agency’s history in the region. Our anniversary party highlighted interesting and notable public health events in the region over the past seven decades. What amazed us as we did research into SJBPH’s history were the parallels in the services that the agency provided over the decades with those provided today. A feature of our 70th anniversary party was a focus on Then and Now, examining the parallels over time, but also highlighting how the agency has adapted to the public health needs of the day and shifted the services it provides accordingly.
Some examples of SJBPH’s Then and Now timeline:
1947: Over 1,000 vaccines given to local schoolchildren for diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and smallpox. Polio and influenza are common and feared diseases at this time.
Now: Many of the diseases experienced by schoolchildren in earlier decades have largely been eliminated through effective vaccination programs. SJBPH provided over 1,900 vaccines to children and adults in 2017.
1948: 92 restaurant inspections, 30 dairy barns, and 8 milk processing plants inspected.
Now: While SJBPH no longer inspects dairy barns or milk processing plants, over 260 retail food inspections were conducted by the agency in 2017. SJBPH also provides food handling and safety classes for local restaurant employees.
1956: San Juan Basin Health Unit (SJBHU, the organization’s original name), provides the only local polio vaccines to school children.
Now: By 1957, the incidence of polio in the United States had fallen by 85-90%, with current day eradication almost achieved. The polio vaccine is widely available to children through the Vaccines for Children Program resulting in the 2017 vaccination rates for children aged 19-35 months reaching about 90% in La Plata County.
1973: Truck crashes on Wolf Creek Pass dumping 5000 pounds of detergent chemicals into the San Juan River. SJBHU alerts the public and begins testing water for safety, and ultimately determines that the contamination is thoroughly diluted by spring runoff with no long-term effects on the environment.
Now: SJBPH responded to the Gold King Mine spill in the Animas River in August of 2015, evaluating public health risk for all types of river users and communicating common-sense practices to stay safe when using the Animas River. Since the spill, SJBPH has collected over 350 samples of river water and sediment and conducted more than 100 private well tests in the Animas Valley to study levels of heavy metals and other possible contamination.
1975: Public alerts issued by SJBHU about rabies prevention after a Pagosa Springs girl is bitten by a skunk.
Now: SJBPH closely monitors for rabies in the region and coordinates with partners including veterinarians, healthcare providers, municipalities, and others to share information about rabies prevention, as well as precautions to protect animal and human health.
2002: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announces that the Rocky Mountain Region has the highest suicide rate in the country, and Montezuma and La Plata counties are even higher.
Now: With a regional suicide rate still above the state and national average, San Juan Basin Public Health’s positive youth development and suicide prevention efforts are important as ever. The Thriving Youth Programs focus on empowering youth to make healthier choices and increase resilience in their lives. The Suicide Prevention program is working to decrease the rates of suicide mortality and attempts for all individuals in Archuleta, La Plata, and San Juan counties through a community-based initiative that engages numerous organizations, agencies, and individuals.
The examination of parallels between past and current day services provided by SJBPH reveals an agency that has been both responsive to the public health needs of local residents as well as forward-thinking in its focus on prevention. The programs and services provided by SJBPH reflect both the traditional public health needs such as immunizations and restaurant inspections, as well as those in response to the modern-day health challenges such as positive youth development and suicide prevention programs.
The agency’s current-day mission is to protect human and environmental health and inspire well-being in the communities we serve. Interestingly, this could have served as the mission in 1948, at the agency’s inception, and more than likely will be able to appropriately represent the work of the agency in decades to come. Much of the focus of public health work has withstood the test of time; to help all individuals reach their highest potential of health. SJBPH’s look back in history reinforces the relevance of this year’s Public Health Week theme, Changing the Future Together.