CDC Scientist Honored for Work in School Health
By Desir'ee Robinson
Growing up in the Bronx, Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH always dreamed of becoming a writer. Not just any writer, but an investigative reporter like his heroes Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post journalists who broke the Watergate scandal. Wechsler's journalistic dream took a detour when service in the Peace Corps landed him in Zaire, Africa—a place that would eventually serve as the catalyst for his career in public health.
"During one dry season I saw a funeral procession of several tiny caskets of children who had died from measles," said Dr. Wechsler, who is currently Director of the Division of Adolescent and School Health, (DASH). "Although they had ample supplies of measles vaccine, health officials in that area were unable to convince parents to bring their children in for the vaccination session and I wanted to do something about that."
Wechsler's work to improve the health of children recently earned him the Milton J.E. Senn Award for achievement in the field of school health by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The award is named for Dr. Milton J.E. Senn, a pioneer of school health programs that have enabled parents, school personnel, pediatricians, and psychiatrists to work better together for the benefit of children.
"Fifty-four million young people attend school for at least six hours per day for 13 years during the formative years of their lives. Therefore, the school has been an important site for health promotion," said Wechsler. "CDC was a pioneer in developing and promoting a model of coordinated school health programs that has revolutionized the field of school health."
Wechsler earned a doctorate in health education from Teachers College, Columbia University, a master's in public health from Columbia University, and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Since joining CDC in 1995, Wechsler has served as DASH's obesity prevention specialist, founding Chief of the Research Application Branch, Acting Director, and, since November 2005, Division Director.
"Since the 1990s, we have seen significant increases in safety-related behaviors and declines in the number of young people who smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol and use drugs, and engage in sexual risk behaviors," added Dr. Wechsler.
Wechsler has provided technical assistance to CDC's school health surveillance instruments and has coordinated projects that promote the implementation of CDC's school health guidelines. He was the lead author of CDC's "Guidelines for School Health Programs to Promote Lifelong Healthy Eating", and played a leading role in the development of a number of health promotion tools for schools including the "School Health Index: A Self-Assessment and Planning Guide". Wechsler says thousands of school systems across the country have used the guide to evaluate their health practices and to improve the services they offer to their school children.
"We feel strongly that schools are a critical setting for health promotion and that, by addressing health issues, schools can remove barriers to learning and do a better job at their core mission of educating our children," said Dr. Wechsler.