PHA History and Contributions
PHAs were established in 1948 by the United States Public Health Service in the Venereal Disease Control Division. This type of public health professional is somewhat unique because of the disease investigation experience that is the foundation of the PHA career. PHAs are exposed to a variety of public health programs across the United States, learning to function at all levels of the public health system. During their time of service, PHAs are called upon to respond to public health or humanitarian crisis.
In the 1940s, PHAs supported State and Local Health Departments to support disease investigation of STDs. Their work involved interviewing people who were newly diagnosed with syphilis, identifying their sexual partners, and going out to the community to find the partners and link them to care. To meet the nee for disease investigators, the US Public Health Service hired a small group of college graduates to work as VD investigators for the federal government. These initial recruits were assigned to work in Maryland.
Over the years, PHAs became an important part of the public health infrastructure. In 1957, the Public Health Service transferred the Venereal Disease Division to the Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta which later became the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. PHAs quickly became assets to the public health efforts because of their abilities to work directly with the impacted communities.
Public Health Advisors were soon called upon by the CDC to help with polio efforts in 1961, they built the national Immunization Program following the passage of the Vaccine Assistance Act of 1962, they were soon recruited to work in the Tuberculosis Program, and by 1992 could be found in virtually all of CDC programs working at local, state and federal levels of the public health system.
In addition to their regular assignments, PHAs are also called upon to respond to disease outbreaks and/or natural disasters. CDC established a locally trained workforce to be ready to deploy for public health emergencies. PHAs can be credited with the eradication of smallpox, and polio. PHAs have contributed to many disease outbreaks including STDs, HIV, TB, Zika, Cholera, Anthrax, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Measles, and Ebola, among others. They have also supported natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. More recently, PHAs have contributed to the contact tracing and disease investigation efforts for the COVID-19 pandemic.
PHAs continue to play a vital role in disease investigation at the Federal and Local public health agencies. CDC continues to hire new PHA professionals through the Public Health Associate Program, supporting on the job skills development for young PHA professionals. The Watsonian Society salutes our PHAs, supporting opportunities for networking, training, and professional development.
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