May 29, 2014
Dean Frenk, Dr. Frieden, faculty, alumni. Good afternoon. Class of 2014. And a special welcome to our family, friends, children, partners, and parents. Those who have made this all possible—even when we came to them with the somewhat unexpected idea that we wanted to study public health.
Perhaps your loved ones looked at you with confusion? Admittedly, public health is not something we come across in our day-to-day lives. And that’s because—when public health is done well—you don’t even notice it. The problem has already been eradicated.
In public health, eradication means to achieve zero disease globally as a result of deliberate efforts. It’s about preventing and eradicating diseases, risks, disparities—not about fixing them once the damage has been done.
Ten years ago, I was studying math at university. Everything was going along as planned—I had a nice boyfriend, good grades and good prospects for a career in technology.
And then I was raped.
In the weeks to months that followed, things fell apart. But I took great comfort in my doctor. I thought that if I could do that for people—give them comfort in their darkest times—a cancer diagnosis or a car crash—then that would be a good use of my life. So I worked hard, went to medical school and started practicing—only to see there were lots of other people who’d had similar experiences to me.
One night in the emergency room, I went to see a woman who been badly beaten by her husband. She was the third battered woman I had seen that night. She had been stitched up and cleared for discharge so I went over to see if she had any questions. I explained that there was transport waiting to take her to the women’s shelter, and asked if she knew where that was. She didn’t meet my eye as she said, “Oh yes, that’s where we go when they hit us.”
At that moment I realized that I didn’t just want to be on the patching up end of health. What had happened to me was a systemic problem. I wanted to work to stop the violence from happening in the first place. I want to eradicate it.
Each of us has our own version of this “eradication” goal. To trial a drug that stops heart failure in people who have had heart attacks. To eliminate racial disparities in childhood obesity. To discover an HIV vaccine to eradicate AIDS. These are lofty goals. And over the last hundred years, HSPH has helped many to aim high and to achieve them.
In 1948, Thomas Weller found a new way to grow poliovirus. This paved the way for the polio vaccine and earned him the Nobel Prize. Today, polio is virtually eradicated worldwide.
Donald Hopkins, who graduated in 1970, has dedicated his life to reducing the burden of guinea worm disease, a horribly painful condition. Through his work, the number of cases of guinea worm has dropped from 3.5 million in 1986 to just 600 last year.
HSPH researchers were among the first to demonstrate the increased risk of lung cancer from secondhand smoke. They contributed to legislation that banned smoking in airplanes, restaurants and workplaces. The idea of smoking in these places was sacred to some at the time but seems ridiculous to us now.
Class of 2014—we will be eradicators too. HSPH has equipped us with the tools and the training we need to go out and achieve our goals. Through our deliberate efforts, we will tear up health problems by the roots, we will get rid of them entirely. We will work together. And we will not stop until we achieve zero. Globally.
Class of 2014, we have dreamt big and we have worked hard to get here. Congratulations on finishing this chapter. There is much to do in the next one—and we are the ones to do it.
Centennial closing symposium
Commencement Eve Celebration photo gallery
‘Make the impossible possible,’ graduates told
Commencement 2014 photo gallery
Commencement 2014 slideshow
Dean Julio Frenk address
Alumni Association President Anthony Dias address