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Celebrating Community Health

By Norm Hess, executive director, Michigan Association for Local Public Health

There are institutions that have been around so long, we sometimes forget what life was like without them.

But it’s worth recalling some of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ greatest hits on the occasion of its 150th year serving Michigan residents.

1873 was the year President Ulysses S. Grant put the United States on the gold standard for currency. Levi Strauss & Co formed, with a patent on using copper rivets to strengthen their soon-famous denim work pants. P.T. Barnum’s circus, the “Greatest Show on Earth,” debuted in New York City. 

But in Michigan, and everywhere, people were dying horribly and too young, and often from causes we no longer think about or even recognize today. Illnesses like typhoid fever, tuberculosis, polio and diphtheria were among the most prevalent causes of death in the mid-1800s, along with waterborne illnesses from unsafe drinking water.

On July 30, 1873, Governor John J. Bagley signed a law creating the state Board of Health and prescribing duties and responsibilities to local health departments. It was the start of government taking active steps to identify and address widespread issues to prolong our lives and improve their quality. Community health was born.

In 1921, Michigan had the highest death rate from diphtheria in the world. Dr. Clifford Young built the first laboratory on state property to address the disease. By 1940, Michigan cut its diphtheria death rate from 1,200 per year to less than 40.

Also in the 1920s, state health experts examined the prevalence of goiter in adults and realized that adding iodine to table salt could cure the condition. To this day, makers of table salt add iodine to table salt everywhere.

In the 1930s, a law was passed giving health officers oversight of water systems in new construction, ensuring water and sewer system plans were submitted to the state health department before construction commenced.

In 1940, it was Michigan Department of Public Health researchers who developed a vaccine for whooping cough. They’d worked on it for nearly a decade. 

The list of accolades for Michigan’s public health professionals goes on, decade upon decade. It is filled with national and international honors for programs, research findings and breakthroughs that have improved human life. For example, our public regional laboratories represent the partnership of local health departments and state public health – they have created a bigger system that supports one another and offers even faster results for underrepresented communities. As our communities have changed, the department has evolved its focus to address changing public and societal threats.

Over the past 99 years, the life expectancy of humans has increased by 30 years in Michigan. A large part of that jump has to do with public health programs that cover every aspect of our lives. Where the historic dangers were largely environmental and communicable diseases that are curable with vaccines, today’s top threats are lifestyle-driven maladies. We are losing too many adults to heart disease and diabetes. Our young people are suffering depression and suicide at unprecedented levels. State and local health officials and staff continue to work with partners in communities around Michigan to address complex issues that contribute to these unrelenting problems.

Local and state health have a storied history of bringing great minds to big challenges. On behalf of local public health officers around the state, we look forward to working together with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to continue to address current challenges and any the future brings so we can achieve another 150 years of success in leading and establishing programs that protect, prolong and improve human life in every community.