For a Global Generation, Public Health Is a Hot Field

By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2008

Courses in epidemiology, public health and global health -- three subjects that were not offered by most colleges a generation ago -- are hot classes on campuses these days.

They are drawing undergraduates to lecture halls in record numbers, prompting a scramble by colleges to hire faculty and import ready-made courses. Schools that have taught the subjects for years have expanded their offerings in response to surging demand.

At Johns Hopkins, which has offered an undergraduate major in "public health studies" since 1976, there were 159 students studying the field 10 years ago; this year, there are 311 majors. At the College of William and Mary, a freshman seminar called "Emerging Diseases" is so popular that it is offered in two sections each semester. "It fills up instantly," said Beverly Sher, the immunologist who teaches it.

"We see exponential growth going on in the interest in these subjects," said Richard Riegelman, an epidemiologist and chief voice of the Educated Citizen and Public Health Initiative, which was put together two years ago by several higher education organizations and advocates undergraduate study of public health.

That group argues that the subject is essential knowledge in the flattened, crowded and worried world of the 21st century.

A recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 137 of its 837 members, or 16 percent, now offer majors or minors in public health. (The number offering single courses is unknown.) Nearly two-thirds of the schools in that group require students majoring in the subject to undertake fieldwork or research.

For the past two years, the association has offered summer workshops for colleges that want to add public health to the curriculum or expand their offerings. Representatives of 63 schools have attended.

"Today's students want to contribute, to empower individuals and communities to take charge of their own health," said Ruth Gaare Bernheim, who teaches health policy at the University of Virginia. "I think they also intuitively realize that the world is their community and that the gains of the 21st century will be in global public health."

Several years ago, students at the University of Virginia started a Global Public Health Society, which sponsors various activities and service projects. Two years ago, the school began offering a global public health minor.

Many forces have converged to make these subjects competitive for students' attention. For starters, global health is a huge growth industry.

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has spent about $15 billion in the past five years, and funding is being nearly tripled for the next five. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are channeling billions into public health initiatives. Malaria eradication -- which failed in the 1950s and 60s -- is again on the table.

Furthermore, the headlines are full of global health news. Today's freshmen experienced the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and bird flu scares in their adolescent and high school years, and they have lived their entire lives in the shadow of AIDS.

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