Anyone unclear on the value of a strong public health system got a real lesson in the last week.

In two separate recent cases in Maine, officials responded quickly to the presence of a highly contagious disease. In each case, they determined the scope of the problem and the danger it posed, and reported it clearly to the public.

They worked with health providers and others, too, on the response so that Mainers possibly exposed could get treatment, and any outbreak could be stopped in its tracks.

It’s one of several great reasons why Maine should support a strong public health system.

The first case came on May 17, when the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention alerted the public that a worker at a restaurant in Caribou unknowingly exposed others to Hepatitis A.

The CDC determined that visitors to the restaurant between April 24 and May 13 had cause for concern. There is a window following exposure to Hepatitis A when a vaccination still works, so the agency then worked with local health care providers to find those folks and get them a shot; in the time since the outbreak was reported, hundreds of Caribou-area residents have been vaccinated against Hepatitis A.


The next case came Tuesday, when the CDC reported the state’s first measles case in two years — an unnamed male student at Madison Junior High School.

Again, working with the school district, the CDC created a timeline for exposure and informed the public, all with the aim of minimizing the outbreak.

That’s no small thing. Both Hepatitis A and measles are highly contagious, and both can cause serious illness, even death in rare cases. Ongoing Hepatitis A outbreaks continue to cause illness — and raise health care spending — in a number of states.

And in the United States now there are 880 cases of measles spread across 24 states. With Maine’s low vaccination rate, one of those cases could cause a serious outbreak here, just as it has in other low-vaccination states.

A robust public health system not only can step in when an outbreak seems poised to break out, but can also take action to prevent the illness in the first place. It can follow statewide patterns of illness and health outcomes, and formulate a response. It can promote vaccinations, regular checkups, physical activity, healthy diets and smoking cessation.

A lot of those priorities got the short shrift during the eight years of Gov. Paul LePage as budget austerity and a lack of belief in government work took precedence over public health. The Legislature and Gov. Janet Mills are now working to restore a lot of those capabilities to their full strength.

The outbreaks in Caribou and Madison announced in recent days show why that’s a wise move.

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