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Uniting to improve public health in Nevada

Muge Akpinar
Muge Akpinar
Shawn Gerstenberger
Shawn Gerstenberger
Opinion
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Improving the health and well-being of Nevadans is not the job of one person or group. It can only be done if we all come together and work toward real and meaningful change. For years, both schools of public health at UNR and UNLV have been doing just that — putting the presumed north-south rivalry aside and working together to mitigate pressing public health challenges during the pandemic. 

Now we need our state leaders to enhance support for our healthcare infrastructure to create a healthier Nevada, not just for today, but for generations to come.

Most of us don’t realize the importance of public health systems until we experience catastrophic events like the COVID-19 pandemic, but they exist to keep communities safe and healthy through prevention, preparedness, and surveillance programs. Public health affects every part of our lives and our environment, from water, soil and food, to how we build our homes and our communities. If we are doing our jobs and preventing illness, we in the public health system are invisible. 

Despite its importance, public health continues to be significantly underfunded across the U.S. and especially in Nevada. The Silver State, for all its positive attributes, is unfortunately considered one of the most unhealthy states in the U.S., ranking 49th in among states for public health funding, allotting only $72 per person. We continue to experience a shortage of healthcare professionals, resulting in a lack of proper care for our most vulnerable communities. 

Nevada also sits at the bottom on metrics including teen pregnancy rates, sexual transmitted disease rates, food insecurity and access to mental health care — which was incredibly dire, especially among young people and minority population,  during the pandemic. 

These are some of the same issues our two schools have been tackling for years. We have faculty engaging in research that provides vital information on risk factors, disease trends, and overall health disparities. Our students, among Nevada’s next generation of public health leaders, are receiving hands-on experience and training well before they enter the workforce. 

Schools of public health at UNLV and UNR already collaborate on programs and initiatives that are directly affecting the community. Housed at UNLV, the Nevada Minority Health & Equity Coalition is a statewide effort that has been at the forefront of addressing health issues affecting the state's most vulnerable populations. With UNR also serving as a member, the coalition has been key in promoting vaccine equity during the pandemic. At UNR, the School of Public Health runs ongoing statewide public health surveillance projects such as the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Systems. The results from this survey, sponsored by the CDC and multiple Nevada state public health programs completed in partnership with UNLV, have and continue to be used statewide.

UNLV and UNR are the only schools accredited in Nevada by the Council on Education for Public Health, and we continue to align our work.  

But this is not enough. We need help. We are limited in our resources. We need more support for evidence-based intervention programs and research projects, and more partners who will support our work toward creating a healthier Nevada.  

The good news is that many of the major health issues we noted are preventable — or can at the very least be mitigated. We have an opportunity to get on the right track. The pandemic may end one day, but other public health issues will not. And we can’t afford to wait for another pandemic to put public health at the forefront of our policy making.

Investing in public health means investing in the future of Nevada by serving more people who need support. It means preventing illness and injury, saving money for individuals and the healthcare systems that serve them. It also means ensuring equitable access and quality care that leads to a healthier population, which in turn leads to a more productive workforce. If we want Nevada to have a thriving community and a flourishing economy, we need to prioritize public health. 

We are asking our state leaders to come together for this cause. We need to invest in Nevada’s health infrastructure and make sure funds and resources are distributed properly so we can together address and find solutions to our biggest health problems. 

Shawn Gerstenberger is the dean of the UNLV School of Public Health. Muge Akpinar is the dean of the UNR School of Public Health.

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