From left: Dr. Alexander Crizzle (PhD), Dr. Khrisha Alphonsus (PhD), Dr. Philip Griebel (PhD). (Photos: Submitted)

The role of public health in the global pandemic

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted society on a global level and has started a conversation about the importance of public health and public health programming.

By Jenna Fraser

Public health, at its core, is about the prevention of disease and limiting the impact of disease once it has occurred. Public health is of critical importance now more than ever as the world continues to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“With respect to the pandemic, examples of public health measures are tracking the spread of disease, developing models predicting the number of cases, developing and testing novel vaccines, COVID-19 screening and testing, public health messaging, public health prevention guidelines, contact tracing, and setting guidelines for schools, work and other social activities,” said Dr. Alexander Crizzle (PhD), associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). “Public health is the most vital intervention in reducing the number of cases, but also to lessen the burden on the health care system.”

Public health is a broad term that encompasses many different disciplines and areas of study, including epidemiology, biostatistics, vaccinology and immunology, program planning and evaluation, policy and health care management, all areas of expertise in the School of Public Health.

The conversation around COVID-19 has recently shifted as the idea of an effective vaccine becomes more of a reality. However, public health professionals caution that the introduction of a vaccine doesn’t mean we can forget about other important public health measures. These measures, such as wearing a mask, physical distancing and practicing good hand hygiene, will remain critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“A person trained in public health and with a background in vaccinology will immediately understand that this is only one part of the bigger picture of COVID-19 control. A vaccine that prevents clinical disease may be great, but control of disease provides no insight into whether the vaccine can prevent viral transmission,” said Dr. Philip Griebel (PhD), professor in the School of Public Health. “COVID-19 has provided an excellent example of an infection that can be transmitted by apparently healthy individuals, and vaccines will be more effective in controlling both disease and viral transmission if they are combined with public health practices that limit transmission.”

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the global community, public health professionals have started to look towards the future, and how society can be better prepare for future pandemics, based on what we have learned from this coronavirus and health care responses around the world.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, many people are aware that there needs to be better preparation should another global pandemic take place, and this is where the Master of Public Health programs are very important, such as the one that is offered by the School of Public Health at USask,” said Dr. Khrisha Alphonsus (PhD), an assistant professor in the school. “Public health professionals are key players since they are involved in various institutions and levels of government and provide the best recommendations to the public to control and prevent the spread of diseases.”

For some, being prepared for future pandemics and dealing with chronic illnesses needs to come with a shift in perspective. This will require a change from focusing on treating a disease when it arises, to a discussion about how to prevent disease in the first place.

“At times, society relies too much on the provision of health care, rather than preventing disease from happening in the first place. This is not limited to pandemics and COVID-19, it is true for many chronic diseases seen in the world such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few,” said Crizzle. “This pandemic has reminded us how powerful public health is in dealing with large scale and global issues.”