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Public Health

Discover what’s possible. Browse these features to find out more about the impact of University of Minnesota research, education, and care—and how you can help.

Don and Janet Wegmiller

Don and Janet Wegmiller are backing what Don calls "the best health care administration program in the country" with a $1 million gift to the School of Public Health.

CIDRAP director Michael Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Photo: Tim Rummelhoff)

A $1.5 million gift to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) from the Bentson Foundation will advance the center’s efforts as a globally recognized leader in the dissemination of timely information about infectious disease threats.

(Photos by Kate Holt)

In his laboratory on the University of Minnesota campus, Paul Bohjanen, M.D., Ph.D., has spent more than a decade working to stem the tide of HIV/AIDS. But it wasn’t until he traveled to Uganda, 8,000 miles away from his lab, that he truly came face-to- face with the gut-wrenching realities of that deadly disease.

“I remember, back in 2003, I visited a hospice program for AIDS patients in Kampala with a group of African doctors,” says Bohjanen. “The facilitator asked how many people in our group had a family member who had died of AIDS, and every single African in the group raised their hand. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Daniel Weisdorf, M.D., and Kumar Belani, M.D. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

International scientific collaboration doesn’t happen by accident — especially in India. “Working in India is about relationships and treating people well,” says Kumar Belani, M.D., a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Anesthesiology and assistant vice president of India affairs in the Academic Health Center.

In the past decade, Belani — a native of Bangalore, India — has become a matchmaker, cultivating relationships between University faculty and scientists working in India.

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Advances is the quarterly publication of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Lyn Steffen. Photo courtesy of Advances Magazine.

Minnesotans have a lower risk of heart disease than the general population according to recent findings from the Minnesota Heart Survey, a study of cardiovascular risk factors led by Lyn Steffen, associate professor of epidemiology. But why?

Lisa Harnack. Photo courtesy of Advances Magazine.

As days grow shorter and colder, Minnesotans are forced to deprive themselves of one natural source of vitamin D — the sun. Vitamin D is one of the few nutrients that people can pick up from sources other than food, says Lisa Harnack, director of the Nutrition Coordinating Center and a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. “Our body can synthesize [vitamin D] when our skin is exposed to sunlight,” she said. “And, of course, in Minnesota, in the winter months, we don’t have much sun exposure.”

Michael Osterholm. Photo courtesy of Advances Magazine.

There are critical gaps in our understanding of the effectiveness of licensed influenza vaccines in the United States, according to a comprehensive study led by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota. The study is published in the November edition of The Lancet Infectious Diseases, (published online Oct. 25, 2011.) Michael Osterholm and colleagues from CIDRAP, the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation, and Johns Hopkins University screened 5,707 medical articles published between 1967 and 2011 for studies of randomized controlled trials and observational studies assessing the reduction in influenza risk after vaccination with licensed vaccines.

Tim Church. Photo courtesy of Advances Magazine.

Should any man of any age — absent symptoms — ever be screened for prostate cancer using the Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test? No, according to draft recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

Amy Becker LaFrance with a young girl in Burkina Faso.

The police officer at the Ouagadougou International Airport visa counter was reviewing my application last February and asked in French, “Madame, what is your profession?” “Public health,” I replied. She cocked an eyebrow and said, “That is not a profession.” Her disdain was clear even though French is my second language. I tried again, saying I was the country director for a U.K.-based nongovernmental organization called Development Media International that is conducting a mass media-based child survival project in Burkina Faso. Finally, she let me enter the country. Even in my native English, this work can take some explaining.

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She calls me the girl with the black heart. Black, like her skin, my Kenyan sister says. Black, like her. I came to Kenya as a naïve journalist believing that Africa, like so many of my colleagues had said, was solely full of suffering and hate. And, yes, I did see much pain. I was stationed at the Mt. Elgon refugee camp in Kenya in 2007 and I witnessed atrocities at the hands of greedy governments, selfish Westerners, and self-righteous religions. But out of this pain came possibilities.

Lucy Cosgrove, Marie Wilson, and Julia Shumway (left to right) with some residents of a shantytown called abatey. Photo courtesy of Advances.

They are bright, curious, and determined—in short, they have what the world needs in budding public health professionals. This summer for their required field experience, many second-year MPH candidates took these qualities far afield; others used them closer to home. Thirteen students jumped into a foreign culture. Although they prepared for that leap in their classes, they had to think creatively and improvise once on the ground. As Maternal and Child Health student Julia Shumway puts it, “we learned as we went along.”

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Good news for those who suffer from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — or COPD: A clinical trial involving more than 1,100 people has found that a common antibiotic called azithromycin can reduce the occurrence and severity of COPD exacerbations or flareups.

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Patrick G. Hays, M.H.A., has had plenty of career success. Hays founded Sutter Health in Sacramento, California, in 1980. Hays also served from 1995 to 2000 as president and CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, and in 2003, he received the American College of Healthcare Executives' Gold Medal Award. Though his own personal determination surely cannot be discounted, Hays is quick to credit his education at the University of Minnesota for those achievements.

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Most people don't think of schools of public health in terms of traditional business models. But at today's top universities, the study of population health and prevention is a complex multimillion-dollar enterprise—one that requires the strategic planning and high-stakes decision making of other industries. Researchers face pressure to think boldly about growing new and traditional research programs in an increasingly competitive grant-funding environment. Educators must keep pace with public health fields that have changed more in the past decade than perhaps at any time to date. And institutions are competing for students on a global scale in ways no one could have imagined just a few years ago.

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Perhaps it's only natural that a biathlete would pursue degrees in medicine and public health. Like biathlon—a sport combining Nordic skiing with target shooting—dual degree programs require the mastery of two disciplines through focus and endurance. It's the skillset Carolyn Treacy Bramante called on to anchor the U.S. women's relay team at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games and bring them to their best finish ever.

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Americans have seen big news in food safety lately. At the end of last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a long-awaited report on foodborne disease rates. Weeks later, on Jan. 4, the president signed into law the Food Safety and Modernization Act, marking sweeping changes to America's food safety system. The legislation gives the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) significant new powers. But will the FDA overhaul make for a safer food supply? There is debate, even among food safety experts.

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How doctors choose to treat their breast cancer patients may play a larger role in whether the cancer returns than experts have believed. That's according to a RAND Corp. study that looked at 994 women with pre-invasive breast cancer. Researchers found significant treatment variations from surgeon to surgeon that may account for up to 30 percent of cancer recurrences.

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A major new clinical trial seeks to determine whether HIV-infected individuals with no symptoms have less risk of developing AIDS or related illnesses if they begin taking treatments sooner rather than later. SPH professor Jim Neaton will lead the trial, which involves 4,000 HIV-infected participants at more than 250 clinical sites in 36 countries. Participants will be followed for up to five years.

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In the wake of headline-making outbreaks such as SARS, West Nile virus, and pandemic influenza, scientists have ramped up efforts to better understand how infectious agents behave and spread among us. But, remarkably, little is known as to how well many infectious diseases spread through the air.

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Too many Americans are ignoring the dangers of indoor tanning, or they are unaware of the dangers, finds SPH researcher Kelvin Choi. In a nationwide study of nearly 2,900 people, Choi found that 18 percent of women use indoor tanning facilities, yet only 13 percent believe people should avoid tanning salons to prevent skin cancer. About 6 percent of men reported tanning indoors.

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A new clinical trial aims to combat obesity by capitalizing on technology and social media's influence on young adults. In the new CHOICES trial (Choosing Healthy Options in College Environments and Settings), an SPH team will test a forcredit course and web-based social networking as a way to prevent unhealthy weight gain in 440 student participants attending three community colleges in Minnesota.

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New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter will keynote the annual Alumni and Friends Scholarship Gala, Thursday evening, Sept. 22. The event celebrates SPH alumni and raises scholarship funds for SPH students. Since joining The New Yorker, Specter has written several articles on critical health issues, including the global AIDS epidemic, avian influenza, and the world's diminishing freshwater resources. His most recent book is Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.

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The SPH announces the launch of the Rothenberger Institute, an organization dedicated to improving the health of students through online courses developed by top public health experts. The Rothenberger Institute will build on successful existing courses— Alcohol and College Life and Sleep, Eat, and Exercise—conceived by its namesake, the late James Rothenberger, who was a national health expert and an early champion of web-based education. Rothenberger, a beloved SPH instructor, taught some 100,000 students during his 35 years at the University of Minnesota.

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"Six months ago I could never have imagined that I would be here today giving this address," said Ed Ehlinger in his remarks at the school's commencement ceremony. Ehlinger was referring to his recent appointment as Minnesota Commissioner of Health. Prior to that, he served for 16 years as director and chief health officer for Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota.

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Is there the political will to change the American diet? That was the question posed by Yale University professor Kelly Brownell at the school's annual Gaylord Anderson lecture. Brownell noted that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has committed $100 million a year over five years to combat childhood obesity. Yet the food industry spends more than that per week, marketing junk food to children.

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The pollution prevention and energy efficiency efforts of the Minnesota Technical Assistance Program (MnTAP) helped state businesses save more than $1.3 million in 2010, reports the agency. MnTAP's experts worked with 120 Minnesota businesses on cost-saving solutions in the past year. The organizations that made changes based on MnTAP's recommendations realized environmental reductions of 163,000 pounds of waste, 17 million gallons of water, 3.5 million kilowatt hours, and 307,000 therms of energy.

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He's known as the King of Hearts, Mother Theresa's cardiologist, the founder of one of the word's largest hospitals, and a champion of health care for the poor, young, and most vulnerable. Devi Shetty has no intention of slowing down. This spring, the world-renowned cardiac surgeon traveled to the Twin Cities to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Minnesota. The Indian physician and U health care experts have forged close ties over the years in a common pursuit to improve health care access worldwide.

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On April 29 Mandy Stahre boarded a plane for Washington, D.C. As an advocate for the National Breast Cancer Coalition, she was traveling to meet with members of the Minnesota Congressional delegation. It was a big day by any account, but the departure date on Stahre's boarding pass carried extra significance. It marked exactly one year since she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. On that day a year ago, Stahre became one of several women in her immediate family, in four consecutive generations, to receive a breast cancer diagnosis.

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Patrick Hays has had plenty of career success. A 1971 alum of the Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) program, Hays founded Sutter Health in Sacramento, California. Today the organization is recognized as one of the country's top integrated health systems. Hays also has served as president and CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) Association, the national coordinating body for the nation's then 49 independent BCBS plans. And in 2003, he received the American College of Healthcare Executives' Gold Medal Award.

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Tracy Miller doesn't like to be boxed in, whether it's on the road or on the job. While the Montana native enjoyed her time in the Twin Cities as an SPH student and staffer at the Minnesota Department of Health, she says she was happy to leave the city traffic behind for a position as a field epidemiologist at the North Dakota Department of Health. In the next dozen years, Miller worked her way up through the state agency, always looking to expand her duties along the way.

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Anne Bunde-Birouste (MPH ’86) is the subject of a film that received the Australian National Human Rights Award. The documentary, Football United: Passport to Hope, tells the story of Bunde-Birouste’s passionate work to form a team of Australian refugees from Africa and the Middle East to represent Australia at the World Cup in South Africa. Bunde-Birouste is a senior lecturer at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine of the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

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The title and focus of our cover story on the "business" of public health are sure to make some of you uncomfortable. I hope you will take the time to read and understand what it takes to run a $100 million-plus research and education enterprise, because I think you will be impressed by our ability to be entrepreneurial and thrive in the face of major economic challenges.

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Warm greetings from our winter wonderland! 2011 ushers in new leadership at the University of Minnesota Academic Health Center (AHC), the umbrella organization that houses the School of Public Health and the U's five other health sciences schools. Aaron Friedman has taken the reins from Frank Cerra, who provided outstanding leadership in the AHC for the past 15 years. Dr. Friedman is a pediatrician who has a strong appreciation for the role of public health. In addition, I look forward to welcoming University of Minnesota President-designate Eric Kaler to campus. Dr. Kaler is a U alum (PhD '82).

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Christine Bakke (MHA ’01) received the Up and Comers Award from Modern Healthcare Magazine. She is an administrator for the Gorecki Care Center at St. Benedict’s Senior Community, CentraCare Health System in St. Cloud, Minn. Nancy Goldstein (MPH ’76) has been named chair-elect of the Cancer Patient Education Network, an organization affiliated with the National Cancer Institute. Goldstein is a patient education program manager at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, and the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital.

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Brian Osberg has been awarded the prestigious University of Minnesota Alumni Service Award in recognition of his dedication to the institution. Osberg's relationship to the University is one marked by his ability not only to strategically envision next steps but also a commitment to do the work to get there. This combination became evident soon after Osberg graduated from the School of Public Health with an MPH in 1986. At the time, he was a vice president at Group Health (now HealthPartners), where he was working to usher in new health care models.

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More than 200 community members came together with School of Public Health leaders to recognize the partnerships that advance the education, research, and outreach efforts aimed at improving population health locally. "We all know that public health has always been a discipline that has valued the concept of collaboration. That is what sets us apart from other areas of scientific study," said SPH dean John Finnegan in his welcoming remarks at the seventh annual Community Partners event. "It is the commitment we all share for making an impact on improving health and preventing disease at the community level."

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School of Public Health professor Mary Story has been elected to the Institute of Medicine (IOM). IOM membership is a status considered to be one of the highest honors in the field of health sciences. "My academic career has been devoted to improving the nutritional health of children and adolescents, and it is an honor to be elected to the Institute of Medicine," says Story.

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The SPH received its highest level of gift support on record in fiscal year 2010, which ended on June 30. More than 650 donors made gifts and pledges totaling $2,724,939, with most of those gifts going to endowed scholarships. With support from University scholarship matching programs, gifts to scholarship endowments will have their awards doubled on an annual basis.

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The University of Minnesota School of Public Health is the recipient of two multi-million dollar preparedness grants that will position the school to conduct and translate preparedness research into training opportunities for the workforce. The work will be carried out under the University of Minnesota Simulations, Exercises, and Effective Education (U-SEEE) project.

Thumbnail image for After completing a portion of her research through a Cancer Biology Training Grant at the University, scientist Mariangellys Rodriguez landed a sought-after fellowship through the National Institutes of Health. (Photo: Richard Anderson

Health care needs to change, and it will, one way or another. That's the uncomplicated fact agreed upon by a panel of experts at the most recent School of Public Health Roundtable, "Leadership Essentials in the Era of Health Reform." The roundtable kicked off with a keynote address delivered by George Halvorson, chairman and chief executive officer of Kaiser Permanente, the nation's largest nonprofit health plan and hospital system. Halvorson spoke of the need to change processes in health care delivery.

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When patients in U.S. hospitals and clinics are in need of blood, they can get it. We have a nationwide system to ensure the collection, management, and distribution of blood. We have blood drives to populate our blood banks. And we have trained hematologists. But half a world away, this is not the reality. In many developing countries, there is no system. If a person needs blood, he or she must find someone who is willing to donate. And even then, it's not a sure bet that the blood is the right type, or even safe.

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Researchers from the University of Minnesota are part of an international team investigating whether Type 2 diabetes can be effectively treated by bariatric surgery. Obesity has long been known to be a major risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. Randomized studies have shown that gastric banding—bariatric surgery involving implanting an adjustable band in the stomach—improves the health of diabetics by encouraging weight loss.

Psychologist Sue Petzel, Ph.D., helps women who have a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer decide whether to undergo genetic testing.

Obesity doesn't just raise older women's risk of developing colon cancer, it may also increase their risk of dying from it. That's according to research led by SPH epidemiologist Anna Prizment. In an analysis of 1,100 postmenopausal women diagnosed with colon cancer between 1986 and 2005, her team found that women carrying excess weight in the waist and hips may be at increased risk of death.

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People are less likely to support laws requiring the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine for young girls when they learn that there is controversy over such laws, finds SPH research. While the vaccine that protects against the potentially cancer-causing virus is widely supported in the medical and public health communities, state laws requiring girls to be vaccinated for middle-school attendance have caused controversy among parents, politicians, and even medical and public health experts disagreeing about whether such laws are appropriate. News coverage about the vaccine requirements likely amplifies the controversy.

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A large-scale study suggests that annual CT scans of current and former heavy smokers could reduce deaths from lung cancer by 20 percent. Screening with the high-tech images has proved so successful that researchers stopped the trial six months early. The University of Minnesota played a major role in the National Lung Screening Trial, recruiting, screening, and tracking 6,600 participants.

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PAD, or Peripheral Artery Disease, is a common and often debilitating condition in which blood flow to the legs is obstructed by plaque that blocks heart or brain arteries. It affects at least 8 million Americans and is considered a major, but less known, risk factor for heart attacks and stroke. As baby boomers age, rates of PAD are expected to spike.New research, led by SPH epidemiologist and Medical School cardiologist Alan Hirsch, shows that each year the U.S. spends roughly $21 billion on PAD-related hospitalizations.

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When Lorna Schmidt signed up to receive text message updates from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), she had no idea she would one day win a contest sponsored by the federal agency. But that's just what happened when the Community Health Education student participated in a text message-based quiz on new tobacco regulations. As one of four winners across the country, Schmidt was profiled in a FDA-produced video on her own efforts in the area of tobacco prevention.

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Sarah Stephenson realized she had an interest in children's health at a dance marathon. At the time, the University of Iowa student was helping to raise funds for young cancer patients and their families. "At the end of the marathon, all the kids who you raised money for come to the dance," explains Stephenson. "When I saw the kids and their families arriving, I realized I had an interest in helping them beyond just this event."

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David Parker remembers the moment he first encountered child labor. It was the early 1990s and the occupational health physician was in Nepal investigating what was at the time a greatly unknown issue. "I walked into a factory, and there were about forty kids sitting on a cold, damp floor hand knotting carpets in a cramped room," he recalls. "I thought, 'My God, this is what people think of when they talk about child labor.'"


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