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Joycelyn Elders Addresses
AAAS Science Policy Fellows
At a luncheon seminar on Tuesday, Joycelyn Elders, wearing a yellow corsage given to her for speaking on her birthday, challenged the 2001-2002 AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows to work to improve health education and access to preventive health care in the United States.
"We do not have a health care system, we have a sick care system," said Elders, adding that more resources are devoted to curing than preventing disease.
Elders, who addressed the fellows at the conclusion of their year-long program in Washington, DC, was a health education advocate long before she became the first African-American woman to hold the position of U.S. Surgeon General. She has clearly not softened on the issues that caused her resignation in 1994. "I didn't mind being called 'The Condom Queen,'" she said of some of the harsher criticisms levied against her. "If everyone who needed one used one, we would markedly decrease the spread of disease."
Along with disease control, Elders spoke of the need for reproductive health education and funding for the betterment of society. She sees teenage pregnancy as a chronic problem that goes beyond immediate costs. "The most common cause of poverty is children becoming parents before they have become adults." Children who are poor, she went on to say, have vastly limited options in access to health care and education, making it hard for them to change their circumstances.
Elders advocated preventative health care as a fundamental way to improve lives. A goal of health care, she said, should be to teach people how to stay healthy-the basics of nutrition, exercise, and STD and pregnancy prevention, as well as information about smoking, drugs, and violence. This goal is elusive under the current health care system, said Elders. "HMOs were never designed to improve health. They were designed to save money."
The need for preventative, patient-focused, affordable health care for everyone is just one of the challenges faced by future scientists, Elders said. She encouraged the fellows to develop strategies and political plans, to understand their goals, and to take every opportunity to make a difference. "You're to be the advocates," she said. "You have the knowledge. Use it to make a difference in society. Turn it into something good."
The fellows have been in Washington for a year, working in the U.S. Congress and in a dozen federal agencies, where they have learned about the policy process, while providing technical knowledge that helps in the decision-making process. More information about the program is available at the following website: www.fellowships.aaas.org.
15 August 2002