by Kim Krisberg

“CQ, CQ Celebrating National Public Health Week!” “CQ, CQ Celebrating National Public Health Week!”

If you’re an aficionado of amateur radio — or ham radio as it’s also known — this is the call you might hear coming out of Oklahoma City on April 6. In layman’s terms, it means “Calling all stations, calling all stations! Celebrating National Public Health Week!”

In honor of this year’s National Public Health Week observance, which runs April 2-8, officials with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department will hold a special drill in which all of its amateur communications equipment will be activated and users will attempt to make as many contacts as possible within 24 hours. It’s not your typical National Public Health Week activity, but it may be the most unique.

“With amateur radio, the best way to learn to communicate effectively is to immerse yourself,” said Dave Cox, deputy director of the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and a 25-year ham radio operator. “Our ultimate last option when everything else fails is amateur radio.”

Amateur radio is part of the department’s emergency response toolkit and allows officials to continue to communicate with staff in the field as well as fellow first responders in the event that a disaster disables traditional communication channels. As Cox said, “you can take everything else down…and ham radio still works.” This is the second year the department has held a National Public Health Week-inspired amateur radio drill. Last year, Cox said operators made contact with fellow ham radio operators in 32 states and four different countries.

And what’s the topic of discussion once fellow operators respond to the health department’s call? Public health, of course.

“A lot of the people are curious about public health and about what we do,” Cox told me. “National Public Health Week is a chance to practice our communications skills and promote the (Oklahoma City-County Health Department) nationwide.”

Join the movement!

Since 1995, the American Public Health Association (APHA)has been organizing the annual National Public Health Week celebration, setting its themes, creating free materials, raising awareness and helping to put a face on the oft-invisible world of public health. And every year, hundreds of communities across the nation take part in the April event, holding health fairs, offering free screenings, educating residents, creating contests, organizing walks and so much more — in fact, the diversity of events is as varied as public health itself. This year’s celebration is zeroing in on the benefits of prevention with a theme of “A Healthier America Begins Today: Join the Movement!”

“Anyone can get involved because anyone can start a walking club in their neighborhood or help start a farmer’s market or write a letter to the editor about access to care in their community,” said Kimberly Moore, who oversees National Public Health Week at APHA and is the association’s director of Affiliate Affairs. “Health affects all of us…and it takes more than just public health practitioners to have a healthy community. We have to take prevention into our own hands.”

Moore told me that this year’s theme was inspired by the 2011 release of the country’s first National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy, which was created by the Affordable Care Act. Each day of 2012’s National Public Health Week has a theme, such as healthy eating, protecting yourself from communicable diseases or promoting mental wellbeing.

“Public health is invisible until we have a crisis, and (National Public Health Week) is a good opportunity to highlight the importance of having a strong public health system,” Moore said. “We want to engage everyone at every level of the community and across the lifespan.”

Spreading the (healthy) word

In Miami, Fla., public health students of Florida International University’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health and Social Work are getting ready for another successful National Public Health Week celebration. Karen Iglesias, president of the college’s student association, said their activities will target fellow students on campus with a message that “preventive care is more cost effective than treatment.”

Each day of the week will feature a different event. For example, Wednesday will focus on hand-washing and free hand sanitizer giveaways and on Thursday, the student association will help host a Sex Carnival, where students can pick up free condoms and try out special goggles that simulate alcohol intoxication while they try to correctly put a condom on a banana, Iglesias said.

“We really want to educate them on public health and how it’s part of their community,” Iglesias told me. “We want to let them know how to take preventive measures that could change your life.”

Nearly 2,000 miles to the north in Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health will be hosting its 8th annual Public Health Film Festival in celebration of National Public Health Week. The free festival is open to students as well as community members and will feature six nights of six films, said Nichole Axtman, special events and program coordinator at the university’s School of Public Health. The documentaries will focus on a variety of health topics, from nutrition to AIDS to end-of-life decisions. Last year’s festival attracted 900 attendees, Axtman said.

“We want to bring about awareness of public health topics in a unique and fun way,” she told me. “It’s not a boring lecture…you get to eat popcorn and hopefully learn something that you probably didn’t know.”

Residents of Brookline, Mass., near Boston will be getting a healthy dose of prevention as well this National Public Health Week. The Brookline Department of Public Health will be hosting a healthy eating seminar for older residents at the Brookline Senior Center; working with local college students to bring hand-washing messages to local children; and offering a free course on emergency preparedness in the home, among other activities. Lynne Karsten, director of community health at the Brookline department, said residents are often surprised at the scope of public health work within the community.

“It’s a good chance to create awareness about public health,” Karsten told me. “It invites people to think about what public health is.”

Back in Oklahoma City, the health department is doing more than starting up its ham radio operations. The city’s mayor is signing a proclamation making National Public Health Week “Rethink Your Drink ” week. The healthy weight campaign is aimed at educating residents on just how much sugar is in soda, said Vicki Monks, the health department’s community relations coordinator. The health department is also gearing up to host an employee health fair with a 1950s theme. Employees will be encouraged to dress in costume (though they reminded the men not to come with cigarette packs rolled up in their sleeves), take part in health screenings and even do a little jitterbug and hula hoop dancing, Monks said.

“We’re going to lead by example,” she said.

For more info on National Public Health Week, including all the free materials you need to get started in your community, visit www.nphw.org.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for almost a decade.