What is public health? It is an abstract concept, hard to pin down. Reports about public health appear in the news every day, but they are not labeled as public health stories, and most people do not recognize them as such. Here in the prologue are four major public health stories of the modern era that bring the abstraction to life. The ongoing AIDS epidemic, arguably the greatest challenge that the public health community has faced in the past 50 years, illustrates the multidisciplinary nature of the field and the complex ethical and political issues that are often an inherent component of public health.
The outbreak of waterborne disease that sickened more than 400,000 people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1993 was the consequence of a breakdown in a routine public health measure that has protected the populations of developed countries for most of the past century.
Lest Americans forget that maintaining the health of the population requires constant vigilance, the dramatic decline in all measures of health in Russia presents a cautionary lesson of what can happen to a society that is unable to protect its people in one regard or another. Finally, the terrorist attacks in the fall of 2001 made it clear that the national security of the United States depends not only on the U.S. Department of Defense, but also on the American public health system.