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Public Health Problem Solvers: Public Health Campaigns that Worked

We’ve all seen them: public service announcements on the television, urging us to stop smoking, eat healthy, wear our seatbelts or get vaccinated; posters reminding us to cover out coughs and wash our hands; brochures at the doctor’s office, warning about the dangers lurking around every corner.

With so many messages coming at us from so many sources, it might seem like these campaigns might be a waste of time and money. You might wonder “does anyone really change their behavior thanks to a PSA or a poster on the subway?”

The short answer? Yes. In fact, while not all public health campaigns have been successful, some have been phenomenally so, leading to profound, positive changes in the lives and health of many Americans. Many of these campaigns have been developed by those who completed public health masters programs, people with a passion for making the world a healthier place and the skills to communicate a powerful message.

Folic Acid

In the mid-1990s, several agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the March of Dimes began an ambitious campaign to encourage women of childbearing age to increase their intake of folate, otherwise known as folic acid, to help reduce the risk of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, in their babies. At the time, fewer than half of women surveyed knew about the importance of folic acid, so the campaign focused on education through brochures, posters and doctor follow-up. Food manufacturers, working with these agencies, began emphasizing the amount of folic acid present in their foods, and included reminders to women about the need for the vitamin. Today, more than 80 percent of women are aware of the need for folic acid before and during pregnancy, and most pregnant women are prescribed a prenatal vitamin containing the minimum daily recommendation.

5 A Day

Raise your hand if you know how many servings of fruits and vegetables you’re supposed to eat each day. If you know that the current recommendation is at least five servings, then chances are you’ve been reached by the national “5 a Day” public health campaign. Launched in the early 1990s by the CDC and the Produce for Better Health Foundation, the 5 A Day campaign was designed to increase the amount of fresh produce consumed by Americans, since studies indicated that more than 90 percent of Americans did not eat enough fresh fruits and vegetables. Using an aggressive public relations campaign, posters, brochures and in-store displays, the campaign has successfully increased awareness of how much produce should be eaten each day, and today, most food is labeled with information about how many servings of fruit or vegetables are contained in the package.

College Drinking

If you’re working toward an online human services degree or any other program, chances are you don’t spend a lot of time on college campuses. If you’ve ever lived on campus –or even visited a college campus or watched the news – you know that drinking is a serious problem among students.

Several colleges, universities and health agencies have created public health awareness campaigns to combat dangerous binge drinking. One of the most effective campaigns was the “Had Enough” campaign launched by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest. This campaign, rather than focusing on the dangers of excessive drinking, instead focused on the perceived majority of students who did not drink to excess on a regular basis, and were getting fed up with dealing with other students who did – and who felt that the quality of their education was suffering as a result of the partying.

The “Had Enough” campaign provided students with strategies and ideas for dealing with excessive drinking, and today, thanks in large part to the campaign and others, offer a wide variety of resources and alternatives for students who do not wish to participate in the drinking atmosphere, or wish to do so responsibly.
These are just a few of the public health campaigns that have successfully raised awareness, and possibly saved lives. Not all campaigns are successful – a 2011 anti-obesity series of ads in Georgia, for example, lead to severe backlash – but many campaigns are able to reach the target audience and effect some change. So the next time you see a poster or brochure, take a moment to look it over – you might just learn something that could save your life.

Wendy Johannsen will receive her master’s in public health online at the end of the year and works for the department of public health, in the meantime.

This is a guest post for TheEmployable

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