February 8, 2018

Public health officials play role in countering attack on science

COF-COF News FindBy: Elizabeth Payne, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa, Ontario 08-Jun-2015 – Public health officials from across Ontario need to do a better job engaging with the public to counter the social-media fuelled movement that some have termed “science under siege”, a public health conference heard Monday.

With growing numbers of responsibilities on their plates — from inspecting restaurants and tattoo parlours to infant health and immunization — public health officials say demands for their services, and expectations, are growing, despite a chronic shortage of funding.

But the annual conference of the Association of Local Public Health Agencies was told that public health officials must play a key role in countering anti-science backlash when it comes to issues such as immunization and fluoridation of water.

“We just need to be smarter. If we don’t occupy the space in the social media, other people will,” said Dr. Peter Donnelly, president and chief executive of Public Health Ontario.

Donnelly likened the rejection of science by some to the reformation when access to the printed word gave people direct access to the Bible and shifted the public’s relationship with priests.

“I don’t think it is that different now. The Internet has this hugely democratizing effect over access to information,” he said. “What (public health) professionals haven’t caught up with is the change that brings in terms of the way we interact with the public.”

Donnelly was participating in a panel discussion on the future of public health, along with Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Gregory Taylor, Dr. David Mowat, Ontario’s chief medical officer, and Ottawa’s medical officer, Dr. Isra Levy,

Taylor said expectations have never been higher for public health officials.

The federal position is relatively new — Taylor is only the second chief public health officer for Canada — and although the provinces have responsibility for most health issues, the public looks to the federal public health chief for influence on a number of issues, from Ebola to prescription drug abuse to vaccine-preventable diseases. The role has evolved, Taylor said, and speaking directly to Canadians is a key role.

Taylor echoed the sentiment that the wealth of information available on the Internet means public health officials can no longer expect their advice to be automatically accepted. “To say, ‘You shall …’ doesn’t work anymore. We have to engage,” he said.

Ottawa’s Levy said vaccination has done more to improve health more than any other health measure other than clean water. The challenge now, he said, is to keep track of all the vaccines available and to get people what they need at the right time.