Michael Marmot has a medical condition with odd symptoms.
He's constantly optimistic.
He's selectively deaf.
And his eyes tend to water at disadvantageous moments.
He discussed his symptoms during his keynote address at today's Opening Session of APHA's 141st Annual Meeting and Exposition and then noted that his condition is what keeps him going.
Marmot, chair of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health and a leader in health equity research, has to be optimistic in the face of dire messages about health inequity worldwide. And he has to be deaf to those who tell him that inequity is a force too big to beat.
And the tears? They come from hearing from all of the people who know we can do better and are excited to try.
Marmot's address, the centerpiece of the Opening Session, served as a rallying cry to those in attendance, urging them not to back away from the fight and, at times, goading them toward change.
At one point, Marmot noted that the U.S. ranks below Latvia when it comes to child poverty, concluding that such a low ranking must have been a choice.
“The level of child poverty is a decision governments make,” he told the audience. “You have a functioning democracy, so this must be the way you want it.”
If not, he said, public health must work to change that reality.
Public health's role in changing the status quo was a central theme of the Opening Session, starting with changes within the Association itself. APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin kicked off the session with a video screening announcing the new APHA and its new tagline: For science. For action. For health. (More on that, plus a video about the new APHA, is here.)
In his speech welcoming APHA to Boston, Mayor Thomas Menino, who is serving his final term before leaving office, outlined what his government has done to improve the health of Bostonians. Achievements include banning smoking in bars and workplaces, keeping trans fats out of restaurants and, in what he called “the biggest fight of my political career,” getting sugary beverage vending machines out of schools.
“I've taken some lumps, but I don't regret any of those decisions,” he said. “They've been effective at improving health.”
As evidence, he cited a 10 percent reduction in smoking (from 25 percent to 15 percent), and a 50 percent drop in teen pregnancies.
“I don't want to leave the impression that we solved all the problems,” he said. “The next mayor will not be bored. But we're leaving a solid foundation.”
Menino ended with a rallying cry as well, urging public health to continue its hard work and making a dig at national politicians.
“Washington doesn't care about us,” he said. “It's gone away from the people. We've got to stay strong, we've got to send out a message out there. We've got to advocate for programs that are so, so important to us.”
The session closed with attorney Sarah Weddington, who argued for the winning side in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade. Weddington is featured in an online documentary series called "Makers" that looks at the work of groundbreaking women.
In speaking to Opening Session attendees, Weddington focused on the role of public health professionals as leaders in the fight for women's health. She urged those assembled to be bold in their work and to take risks.
“It is part of being a leader to do things you're not sure are going to work,” she said.
She recalled a time when women who sought birth control from student health services at the University of Texas had to first prove that they were within six weeks of getting married, “so they could be protected on their wedding night.”
From that history, we've come a long way, she said, but more remains to be done and that work will be done by leaders.
“We are here to think globally, but to act locally,” she said, echoing the Annual Meeting theme. “We are here to be leaders. We are here to...find the willingness and the ability to leave our thumbprints.”
Check back here in the coming days for video of the Opening Session speakers. And tell us about your favorite Opening Session moments in the comments below.
Above from top to bottom, Opening Session speakers Michael Marmot, Sarah Weddington and Thomas Menino. Photos courtesy Jim Ezell/EZ Event Photography