Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy has been calling attention to loneliness as a public health concern for several years. But during the APHA 2021 Closing General Session earlier today, he said, “There hasn’t been a time in my lifetime where the power and importance of human connection has been more clear and present than it is right now.”

Vivek Murthy and Georges BenjaminLoneliness made for a fitting discussion between Murthy and APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, as this year’s Annual Meeting theme was “Creating the Healthiest Nation: Strengthening Social Connectedness.” The session capped off APHA’s first hybrid meeting, which welcomed around 10,000 people virtually and in Denver.

During Murthy’s first stint as surgeon general in the Obama administration, as he traveled around the country, people told him stories illustrating their loneliness and isolation, and he shared his own struggles with loneliness as a child and adult.

“They would say if they disappeared tomorrow no one would ever notice. They would often say to me that they felt invisible.”

Loneliness has only been exacerbated during the almost two-year COVID-19 pandemic. “Loneliness is more than a bad feeling,” Murthy said. “It has consequences for our mental and physical health, increasing the risk of anxiety, depression, but also heart disease, premature death and other health conditions we all worry about.”

But the pandemic also gives us an opportunity, he said, to recognize that our connection with one another is necessary, not just something nice to have. It should be a topic included in pandemic preparedness.

Murthy also talked about the honor of being a part of the public health field. “I’ve always been proud to be a member of the public health community, but in no time have I been more proud than now, seeing what our colleagues have done all across the nation to take care of folks to respond to this pandemic, inspiring a new generation of public health professionals.”

He spoke about his pride in public health students as well. “(They) have seen extraordinarily difficult times and they persevere and say, ‘I want to see this through; I want to become a public health professional because I want to serve in these moments.’ And that just gives me immense pride and hope for the future.”

Health equity Is achievable

David Satcher at lecternDavid Satcher, both a former U.S. surgeon general and former CDC director, presented on “Achieving Equity: The Key Ingredient for A Healthier Nation” during the closing session. Earlier in the week, Satcher was awarded the 2021 Fries Prize for Improving Health for his outstanding achievements and lifetime commitment to eliminating health disparities and championing health equity for all.

Satcher, founder of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine, outlined some of the “highs and lows” of public health, which he said we need to think about as we plan for 2022 and beyond. We need to consider “how, together, we’re going to create the healthiest nation in the world. We have a lot to do; we have a lot to do for our children, and we have a lot to do for ourselves.”

One of the top public health successes has been the eradication of smallpox, which was made possible by the development and acceptance of vaccines. When Satcher was director at CDC, polio eradication was a top priority, though it hasn’t been achieved yet because of conflicts in places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The inability to reach children in those areas illustrated how public health can get caught up in politics, he said.

“Polio could have been eradicated, we think, if it had not been for the fighting that prevented us from immunizing children,” he told attendees. However, he noted and applauded the recent success in Africa, which was declared free of wild poliovirus in 2020.

To illustrate the importance of health equity in stark numbers, Satcher shared the 2005 findings from his study, “What If We Were Equal? A Comparison of the Black-White Mortality Gap in 1960 and 2000.”

He and fellow researchers concluded that if the mortality gap between Black and white people in the U.S. were eliminated, it would have saved the lives of 83,570 Black people in just the year 2000. That number included:

  • 24,000 lives saved from heart disease,
  • 7,000 from HIV/AIDS,
  • 4,700 infant deaths,
  • 22,000 from diabetes, and
  • 2,000 Black women from breast cancer.

“The goal of equity is not something to take lightly,” Satcher said. “It means we can change the world, the way we live, the way that we relate to each other. We can reduce a lot of suffering.”

The Closing General Session closed this year’s Annual Meeting, but also kicked off APHA’s year-long 150th anniversary celebration, which will include monthly themes throughout 2022 under the umbrella of “150 Years of Creating the Healthiest Nation: Leading the Path Toward Equity.” It all leads up to the capstone event, APHA 2022 in Boston, Nov. 6-9.

From top: Vivek Murthy and Georges Benjamin share a light moment during the Closing General Session. David Satcher tells us we can achieve health equity. Photos by Jim Ezell/EZ Event Photography