Recently, the National Summit on Preventing Youth Violence convened over 600 Justice Department officials, police chiefs, school leaders, health officials and young people from more than 30 cities in Baltimore to discuss our city’s strategy for reducing youth violence.
This meeting was a timely one, coming a week after House leaders — including Baltimore’s own Reps. Elijah Cummings, C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes — joined the sit-in of the House floor calling for renewed action following yet another deplorable display of senseless violence. But despite this unprecedented moment of solidarity in the Capitol, our nation continues to mourn as we remain at a crossroads.
We know the terrible statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), guns kill more than 31,000 people each year in the U.S. The U.S. homicide rate is seven times the average of other high-income countries. In Baltimore, we just experienced the deadliest year on record with 344 homicides in 2015.
As an emergency physician who has treated patients dying from gunshot wounds, I have no doubt that gun violence is always a matter of life and death. As the city’s doctor, I have no doubt that gun violence is a public health crisis. We know how to treat people who have been shot, but we need to prevent that bullet wound in the first place.
In medicine, diseases cannot be cured by putting off treatment. They require prompt diagnosis and evidence-based therapy. Since gun violence follows the same pattern as an infectious disease, spreading from person to person, we must prevent the spread and intervene as early as possible. We must diagnose the cause and exhaustively implement treatments to prevent further tragedy.
In Baltimore, public health interventions, including violence interruption and prevention, have been proven effective. In 2015, our Safe Streets program mediated nearly 700 conflicts, the vast majority of which were predicted to result in gun violence. That’s more than 550 murders prevented by treating violence as a disease. But following a year of near-record homicides, and in the wake of renewed tragedy, we know we must do more.
Public health does not stop at the immediate inputs of violence. We must also make the case for the earliest interventions so that we can give our children every opportunity for success.
Freddie Gray was lead-poisoned as a child, as are thousands of children across America every year. In fact, the CDC estimates that about 500,000 children between the ages of 1 and 5 have elevated levels of lead in their bodies. These youth often experience worse educational outcomes and are at a disadvantage right out of the gate. In Baltimore, our interventions, including housing remediation and universal lead testing, have already resulted in an 86 percent reduction in the number of children poisoned by lead within 10 years.
Recently, we implemented Vision for Baltimore so that every child who needs glasses will get them, free of charge, in their schools. This will prevent as many as 10,000 elementary and middle school students from falling behind and ending up in trouble. Expanding investments in our youth will lead to better health while leveling the playing field of inequality in the first inning, rather than the bottom of the ninth.
These interventions have shown just how powerful public health can be as a tool for health and social justice.
If we are truly serious about curtailing our nation’s gun violence epidemic, then we need to put our full support behind science-based approaches to guide our policies. We need to allow federal funding for research on gun violence. We need to remove dangerous gag orders that prevent doctors from asking patients about gun safety. And we need the federal government to put its full power, support and funding commitments toward ending gun violence.
Unlike so many medical ailments that do not have a cure or a vaccine, with gun violence, we have the power to make change, prevent injury, and save our citizens.
By investing health, in both immediate intervention and upstream prevention, with urgency, compassion and most importantly, with action, we can cure violence, prevent further tragedy and end this national public health crisis.
Dr. Leana Wen is the commissioner of health in Baltimore City. Twitter: @DrLeanaWen and @BMore_Healthy.
Originally published at www.baltimoresun.com on July 1, 2016.