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The Importance of Being Persistent

Public health is replete with good, stubborn people.

Brian W. Simpson, Editor
By Brian W. Simpson, MPH ’13, Editor • Illustration by Erhui1979/iStock

Like diamonds, public health has many facets. Prevention, surveillance, a population-level perspective, evidence gathering… all are critical sides of public health. I’d like to add one more: persistence.

Medicine may have the immediate drama (a life saved from myocardial infarction, a medication with quick results, etc.), but public health programs and their evaluation work differently. They arrive at solutions through painstaking, years-long effort.

How painstaking? Consider Noor Sabah Rakhshani’s journey, which Maryalice Yakutchik chronicles in “The Dream.” In riveting dispatches from a three-year (so far) effort, Rakhshani drew on considerable inner grit and persistence to realize her vision. She is dedicated to designing a cheap, easy means to remind new moms of their infants’ vaccination schedule. She’s persevered through countless challenges, including blizzards, cyclones, terrorism and—perhaps most daunting of all—bureaucratic red tape.

It’s a story that’s at once remarkable and not-so-remarkable. Public health is replete with similarly stubborn people. When Al Sommer demonstrated the benefit of vitamin A supplementation in low-income countries, he was greeted with a maelstrom of “too good to be true” criticism. He resolved to do yet more trials (requiring more years and more challenges) to prove the value of supplementation, which now saves literally hundreds of thousands of kids’ lives each year. There’s plenty more: David Bodian’s dogged sleuthing on poliovirus, Keerti Shah’s research connecting the human papillomavirus to cervical cancer, Sue Baker’s decades-long efforts to prevent injuries on the roads and in homes… Trust me, it’s a long list.

I’ve always said that one of the great benefits of working at the Bloomberg School is being surrounded by so many smart people. I need to add one more benefit: Working with so many people who just won’t quit.

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