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National task force announces new framework for academic public health programs

Climate change is a serious and present threat to all dimensions of human health – one that professionals across the public health sector urgently need to be trained to address. This call to action is the central message of a report issued recently by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH), an organization representing more than 130 accredited schools and programs in the field. “Preparing this document brought leaders in public health training together to ask what we can do differently in the face of a crisis that is playing out in real time throughout the world and will affect all of us for generations to come,” said Dr. Alex Travis, director of Cornell University’s Master of Public Health (MPH) Program and member of the taskforce behind the report.

Over the course of more than a year, Travis and his colleagues hammered out recommendations across four core areas: education and training, research, policy and advocacy, and practice. They would like to see climate change and health be integrated into every public health curriculum (in 2019 only half of 90 institutions evaluated offered a course on climate change, usually an elective, according to the American Public Health Association) and become a core competency in which all professional public health students must show proficiency.

As a member of a select task force of only sixteen members – primarily deans and directors of public health schools and programs – Travis appreciated the opportunity to help shape the conversation around climate change and health in a prominent national organization. A researcher on a diverse set of subjects related to One Health – linking the health and wellbeing of people, animals, and the environment – he offered a holistic perspective that already has broad support at his home institution. “For well over a decade, Cornell has looked at the world through a much more transdisciplinary lens,” he said, pointing to the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability as an example of how Cornell brings together hundreds of faculty members from across campus.

Tackling the effects of climate change – such as increases in extreme weather events or the spread of vector-borne diseases – on human health requires such a multidisciplinary approach, according to Travis. “Who suffers the most? Those who are least resilient, the poor, the elderly,” he said. “The social and environmental determinants of health cannot be disentangled from climate change.” In fact, Cornell’s MPH program “is unique in being founded on the pillars of sustainability, equity, and engagement and was created in part because public health was not sufficiently emphasizing this intersection of environment and human health,” Travis explained. He also serves as chair of the multidisciplinary Department of Public and Ecosystem Health that was launched in the College of Veterinary Medicine a year ago. “We created this new academic structure specifically so we can come together across disciplines to tackle these massive issues. The ASPPH taskforce findings are directly relevant to what we are doing here on campus and in the MPH Program, so that we can meet the needs of the public health workforce.”

A webinar on October 26 will mark the official release of the report, titled “Responding to the Climate Change and Health Crisis: A Framework for Academic Public Health,” with a panel discussion on negative health impacts of climate change and the role of academic public health in responding to the challenges. “We hope it will be a call to action for academic public health around the world,” Travis said.

The ASPPH’s launch webinar takes place on Oct. 26, at 2 p.m. Eastern time.

Written by Olivia Hall