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Summer Reading: Smallpox and public health funding

Everyone is talking about the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act today, and with good reason.  One thing I know beyond question is that whether our neighbors and fellow citizens have health care insurance affects us all. 

Today’s decision isn’t only about public health and fairness.  It goes way beyond that.  Health care is a critical cornerstone that provides social stability. 

I’ve been thinking about our country’s accomplishments in public health lately;  I recently finished reading a graphic and gripping book called The Speckled Monster by Jennifer Lee Carrell, a story about the efforts to find a cure for smallpox in the late 1700’s. For anyone who questions the importance of building strong public health systems to deal with contagions, I strongly recommend this book. It is a page-turner.

I’m especially grateful that I am not living in the 18th century. I learned that smallpox, which was essentially eliminated by the mid-20th century, ravaged thousands of cities and villages in Europe, Asia, Africa and ultimately transferred to the Americas.  The Speckled Monster follows two main characters in Boston and in London who experiment – despite allegations of quackery – with cures and ultimately primitive inoculations.

My two sons made it through childhood with only the usual ailments we expect to see in our kids today. I can’t imagine the horror of mothers who helplessly watched their children battle small pox: first the raging fever, then intense headaches, followed quickly with a burning rash, then pox that blistered the mouth, nose, throat, and eyeballs making eating, drinking, or speaking virtually impossible.   The contagion flew through families and neighborhoods.  Those who did survive were often left permanently disfigured or blind. 

The virtual elimination of smallpox heads the list of the last century’s Top Ten Achievements in Public Health.

In Washington state, the Affordable Care Act strengthens our ability to respond to disease outbreaks, such as whooping cough and swine flu, granting more than $6 million in funding for core public health services, such as environmental health tracking, disease surveillance, and public health lab testing facilities.

I’m grateful today to reflect that because of the Affordable Care Act, 50,000 Washington residents with incomes below 133 percent of the federal poverty level ($25,390 for a family of three) retained their subsidized health insurance in the state Basic Health Plan and medical care services programs.

 Today’s decision is a first step toward single payer and preventative health care for all.  Thanks, US Supreme Court.  We needed that.

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