The term "public health" means exactly what the two words say. Public health is about the health of the public at large. And the public at large refers to "us" more than "you" or "me."
Sure, individuals make up community. But, sometimes, in our intensely individualistic society, we neglect our personal responsibilities. It's easy to forget that personal behaviors are directly related to public welfare. When it comes to public health, though, the problem is that an acceptable risk for one might not be an acceptable risk for all.
Consider the flu shot. You might think, "I'm not going to get one because I'm not in any of the high risk groups, I don't think I'll get sick, it's unpleasant to get the shot and, to top it all off, it's inconvenient, too."
Fine. I hear you. In fact, you raise many valid issues. However, public health has stronger counter arguments, point-by-point.
It's true that healthy adults aren't particularly at risk, but you can still get sick. Having the flu is unpleasant, to say the least. You're also correct that flu shots hurt, if not at the moment, then later when your arm starts aching. Trust me, my arm is aching from yesterday's inoculation. But honestly folks, it's a little pain in the shoulder -- not a big pain in the neck.
As to inconvenience, yes, it takes some special effort to get a shot. But, flu vaccines are available in amazingly diverse places. From airports to rural supermarkets, the doctor's office to the hardware store (seriously!). Sure, it takes a little effort, but afterward, you can treat yourself to something seriously luxurious -- without any guilt.
Maybe you're saying, "Yeah, yeah, I know all that," but somehow, deep down, you're still not motivated to go get a flu shot.
Okay, it's time for a different perspective. First of all, stop thinking about "me" -- as in, my health, my pain, and my inconvenience -- and start thinking hard about "others." Ask yourself, "Who else is at risk should I get the flu?"
The obvious answer is includes people with weakened immune systems, the elderly and babies. But, what about the kids with asthma or the adults who care for the babies? How about the people who keep things going -- broadly defined -- that means all of us. Like you, I'm one of them. If I get sick, my colleagues pay a price. If you get sick, the people who rely on you are at risk.
It might seem natural to protect yourself, but public health reminds us that we have a responsibility to be mindful of the people around us. Sure, preventing the flu is good for me, but my health is a boon for those for around me. At the very least, they won't have to take care of me, or cover for me, or wince every time I sneeze, cough or sweat feverishly in their direction.
The way I see it, flu shots are like voting. We vote and we get vaccinated because we live in community and we partake in society. We make the personal effort because we care about ourselves and because we care about others. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, caring for others is enlightened self-interest. And there is nothing wrong that!
I, for one, am grateful for all those people who got their flu shots weeks ago since my body needs two weeks post-vaccine to have the full benefits of immunity. And in the future, others will benefit because so many of us chose to get vaccinated now. I hope so.
The flu is no fun. In contrast, contributing to a healthier community is an act of compassion, and that feels great.