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Environmental Factor

March 2011

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Olden speaks on urban and global environmental public health

By Eddy Ball
March 2011

NIEHS Director Emeritus Ken Olden, Ph.D.

Olden emphasized the shared concerns of urban and global health. "What we learn [about public health] in New York is global," he said, describing New York as a "microcosm of the world." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Congressman Brad Miller, D-N.C.

In his opening remarks, Miller, the politician, was also a diplomat, as he turned the podium over to Olden. Miller described Olden as "someone who knows more about what I'm talking about than I do." (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ken Tindall, Ph.D. and Nicole Fouché, Ph.D.

As Olden spoke, former NIEHS molecular biologist Ken Tindall, Ph.D.( Exit NIEHS, seated, and Fouché listened to their guest. Tindall is currently NCBC senior vice president for science and business development, as well as vice chair of the TGHC board of directors. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Judd Spalding, left, and former NIEHS Principal Investigator Ray Tennant, Ph.D.

Former NIEHS Biologist Judd Spalding, left, and former NIEHS Principal Investigator Ray Tennant, Ph.D., were on hand to hear their former leader talk. Spalding and Tennant were instrumental in the National Center for Toxicogenomics, one of Olden's major initiatives as director. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

As NIEHS Director Emeritus Ken Olden, Ph.D., gets ready to complete the latest chapter in his outstanding career, he took time out of his busy schedule to discuss his vision of urban environmental public health. Olden gave the keynote presentation at a monthly breakfast meeting of the Triangle Global Health Consortium (TGHC)( Exit NIEHS Jan. 28 at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBC) in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Olden is founding dean of the new school of urban public health at the City University of New York, a position he accepted in 2008 when he left his lab at NIEHS. He served as NIEHS director from 1991 to 2005.

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Focus on global and urban public health issues

Facilitated by Consortium Executive Director Nicole Fouché, Ph.D., the meeting also featured opening comments by Congressman Brad Miller, D-N.C. Like Olden, Miller spoke on the topic of urban and global environmental public health. Miller related his experiences visiting Nairobi, Kenya, where two million people live in the second largest slum in Africa. Miller said of the impact of the urban population boom and growth of the aging population worldwide, "It's not pretty... and our future is tied up with all that."

As Olden began his presentation, he used a sports analogy to impress upon the audience how important it is to recognize emerging public health issues before they become too great to overcome. He reminded his listeners of hockey great Wayne Gretsky's secret for success - "'I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.'"

Like Gretsky, Olden explained, public health professionals need to look ahead, to focus on emerging issues of urban public health and the impact of a population with a life expectancy that has increased dramatically over the last century. Although public health made great strides in the 20th century and was responsible for most of the 35-year increase in life expectancy since 1900, Olden said, "Public health [currently] has fallen behind in terms of public understanding and resources."

New ideas for a new century

According to Olden, public health advocates have failed to make a compelling argument to truly awaken the voters' genuine interest in public health. Part of the reason is, he said, "We're still focusing on 20th century problems," such as infectious diseases. While mainstream medicine emphasizes drugs and high-tech procedures to treat disease in individuals, public health advocates have not effectively engaged communities and informed people of the value of preventing disease in the first place.

Olden singled out four major issues that he said will dominate public health in the 21st century:

  • Prevention of the chronic diseases, such as diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), that are quickly becoming the major diseases worldwide
  • Promotion of healthy cities, which are growing rapidly as people everywhere leave rural areas in search of opportunity, pushing the percentage of people living in cities to 50 percent worldwide and 80 percent in the U.S. and other developed countries
  • Healthy aging, so people can remain disease free, active, and productive during what Olden called one of the "critical windows of development" beyond retirement, contributing to economic output and decreasing healthcare costs
  • Elimination of health disparities, which will only increase in severity as minority populations increase

Olden's talk was well received and sparked a lively discussion about health issues and productive aging, with one member of the audience, TGHC board member and North Carolina State University associate professor and director of Global Health Initiatives Marian McCord, Ph.D., suggesting, "We should retire the word 'retire.'" Olden concluded with a vision for the future, "The best and brightest will be going into public health," helping people live longer, better lives while saving health care resources by preventing disease.

The audience at NCBC, like people elsewhere in the Triangle, can look forward to seeing and hearing more of Olden in the future. As he ushers the new school of urban public health through the accreditation process and looks back at his remarkable accomplishments in New York City, Olden is also considering the next phase in his career back on home turf, as CUNY begins its search for a permanent dean to head the vision Olden made into a reality.

Winston Liao

Among the diverse audience was North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services epidemiologist Winston Liao, who asked Olden if he could suggest some possible options for raising awareness of chronic lower respiratory diseases, especially those approaches that related to community involvement and public health strategies. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Louise Winstanly

Several members of the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health turned out for Olden's talk, including Louise Winstanly, above, an adjunct assistant professor and bioethics consultant. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Promoting world health by raising awareness locally

The Triangle Global Health Consortium describes its mission as establishing North Carolina as an international center for research, training, education, advocacy and business dedicated to improving the health of the world's communities. It seeks to engage academic, governmental, business, and nonprofit organizations in this collaborative effort.

The TGHC's board and steering committees reflect the broad range of input described in its mission statement. Board members range from leaders in the academic community, such as chair Margaret (Peggy) Bentley, Ph.D., associate dean of global health at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, and non-profits, such as Pape Gaye, president and CEO of IntraHealth International, to business people, including Jack Bailey, senior vice president of the Private, Public, and Institutional Customers division at GlaxoSmithKline.

Steering committee members include NIEHS/NTP scientist Rear Admiral William Stokes, D.V.M., director of the NTP Interagency Center for the Evaluation of Alternative Toxicological Methods (NICEATM), who serves with several other practitioners of human, animal and environmental health on the TGHC One Health Collaborative Steering Committee. Organizational members range from Duke University and North Carolina Central University and non-profits FHI (Family Health International) and RTI (Research Triangle Institute) International to biotech companies Arbovax and SCYNEXIS.

In addition to its breakfast series, which takes place on the fourth Thursday of each month, the Consortium is an intellectual hub and clearinghouse for global health in the area, enhancing the awareness of and connections between North Carolina's experts and expertise. In this way, it enhances the efficacy of each organization dedicated to improving the health of the world's communities. Stay posted to the TGHC Web site( Exit NIEHS for news, events, and opportunities.

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