There are a great many ways that public health skills are being used in preventive and community health programs around the world. Yet when we think of ‘medical missions’ over the last 200 years there has been a strong clinical (medical) approach. Why should a preventive approach complement this strong medical component of medical missions?
If diseases all responded to a curative approach, there might not be a need for disease prevention. But in almost any category of “disease,” there is need for BOTH a curative and a preventive approach. This can be illustrated with just an example or two.
Neonatal tetanus must be dealt with by antitoxin and medication to avert death and respiratory paralysis, and yet it can be prevented by careful care of the umbilical cord at birth. In one animistic tribe in Ethiopia there was the belief that the umbilicus must be covered with dirt from the entrance of the house in order to control access to the spirits to the entrance of the body; clearly there was a need for both medical intervention for the sick but also for education – addressing not only the biology but also the fear of spirits which were part of the local worldview.
In Nepal there is a high maternal mortality rate because of lack of access to facilities with good midwifery and caesarian section capability. The problem cannot be addressed with clinical care alone, but there must be attention to community education, early detection of high risk pregnancies, and training of community based midwives.
Ebola needed both treatment units (highly intensive and technical) as well as community education and contact tracing – both a highly clinical approach to the individual as well as a highly preventive approach in the community.
Road traffic accidents must be treated with competent facilities and personnel, but to reduce the incidence of accidents also requires community and government initiative, safe roads, helmets, seat belts, and a shift in mindset away from fatalism.
Almost every condition requires both a clinical and non-clinical approach. Physicians and nurses are superb at what they do, but there is much that remains undone, either in prevention of illness and injury, or in follow up management of those with chronic conditions, infections and disabilities.
God’s covenant promise to Abraham was to bless all the nations of the earth through him and through his descendants. God showed his concern for justice and human flourishing as he gave to his descendants the commands, promises and laws which reflect the best of human flourishing. Jesus – the descendant of Abraham – continued to show God’s character by healing many and sending his disciples out preach good news and to heal many others. The compassion of Jesus has led many over the centuries to sacrifice their own comfort out of compassion for others.
Is God concerned with prevention of human suffering? Does He encourage us to promote health as well as cure disease? Yes! God’s Word stands in contrast to the thinking of behaviorists or other forms of fatalism – those who believe we can’t really change things. We are not able to manipulate the universe but God does sovereignly control the world and works out all things according to His purposes and design. He has demonstrated His promised blessing to Abraham and His children, and ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ. This is a universe created and sustained by a Person – good, righteous and true — not an impersonal force.
A Christian can confidently work to show God’s care for human life. As followers of Jesus Christ we trust that the Lord of the universe can change things (He has authority and power) and that He (not we) ultimately works for the blessing of mankind. The salvation Jesus accomplished on the cross bridges the sin problem (our separation from God) and thus enables us, by His grace, to both love God and love our neighbor. That love extends not only to care but to the prevention of human misery. That’s public health from a Christian point of view.