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Public Health and the Occupy Movement

As Occupy Wall Street has evolved into Occupy Boston, Occupy Seattle, Occupy Los Angeles, among others, public health professionals have had to respond not only the movement's message, but also to the movement's public health needs.
Public Health and the Occupy Movement

Occupy Seattle's location in the Capitol Hill neighborhood

November 15, 2011

As Occupy Wall Street has evolved into Occupy Boston, Occupy Seattle, Occupy Los Angeles, among others, public health professionals have had to respond not only the movement's message, but also to the movement's public health needs.

Encampments have sprung up in downtown parks across the country. Large numbers of people are living in close proximity, exposed to the elements, with rudimentary cooking, sanitation, and bathing facilities. Many of the Occupy settlements are generally well-kept. But when people from many different places are crowded together for days and weeks without access to basic facilities, it presents a significant risk for injuries, illnesses, and disease outbreaks.

For example, an outbreak of head and body lice was recently reported at Occupy Portland. Inspectors found open human waste at the Occupy Philadelphia camp. Poor food storage triggered a rat infestation at Occupy Oakland. "Any time you have a large number of people in an event like this, there's potential for illness to spread rapidly," said Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for Los Angeles County. In addition, cold weather conditions in the coming months are expected to further affect the health of those participating in the Occupy movement.

Public Health Planning

Many Occupy activists are making concerted efforts to ensure the health and safety of camp residents. Occupy Boston has its own food and sanitation committees that meet with a city official to discuss health issues. Occupy DC is proactively searching for ways to ensure a clean water supply at their camp in McPherson Square when the city shuts off the fountains for winter. And Occupy Seattle is discussing preventive measures against hypothermia and making a list of needed first aid items.

As the Occupy movement has evolved, public health practitioners have been applying strategies used to prevent health risks at other events involving large groups of people, such as music festivals and marathons. Tools such as NWCPHP's online training module, Mass Gatherings: Are You Prepared?, incorporate lessons from past events and provide guidance on how to prevent and mitigate public health threats at mass gatherings. NWCPHP faculty Andy Stergachis, PhD, RPh, served as the content expert for the module, and is also a member the World Health Organization's Virtual International Advisory Group on mass gatherings.

"Mass gatherings, like those presented by the Occupy movement, pose special challenges to public heath agencies," Stergachis commented. "These include the need to plan for and respond to communicable disease outbreaks and to establish proper surveillance for these and other adverse health effects."

Public Health Response

Local public health department responses to these camps have varied widely. In many cities, the local health department has no active role in monitoring the conditions, even though camps may not meet minimum campsite standards for portable toilets, space between tents, water spigots, showers, and emergency exits. In other cities, health officials conduct daily inspections. In Los Angeles, for example, health officials have directed organizers to increase the number of portable toilets, to have them emptied twice daily, and to provide water jugs for hand-washing. In San Francisco, officials conducting twice-daily inspections have identified food, garbage, hand-washing, and other sanitation issues.

Public health's role may not always be clear-cut in these types of situations. Balancing the public health good and the protesters' right to autonomy reveals the tension of key legal issues at play—legal issues that many public health officials may be unsure in handling. To help them, NWCPHP's newest online training module, Practical Law for Public Health Officials, enables public health leaders to recognize legal issues in public health and to understand their legal responsibilities and authority.

NWCPHP's Director, Susan Allan, MD, JD, MPH, commented, "The safety and sanitation concerns of the Occupy movement’s camps are a reminder that public health is an aspect of almost everything we do."

NWCPHP Resources of Interest

Mass Gatherings: Are You Prepared?
This module will teach you to assess and plan for the prevention and mitigation of public health threats at mass gatherings. It covers topics of risk assessment, surveillance, health response, coordination, and communication.

Practical Law for Public Health Officials
Understanding public health law and how to use it is essential to protecting the public’s health. This module is designed to help public health leaders and professionals recognize legal issues, work effectively with legal counsel, and understand their legal responsibilities and authority. Its content was drawn from the experience of public health officials and of lawyers who have worked with them.

Text Messaging by Public Health Research
Text messaging has been an important element of the Occupy communications strategies, so could public health use text messaging to convey public health prevention and emergency information? NWCPHP and Public Health - Seattle & King County researchers are exploring text messaging to determine if it could be an effective way to convey public health emergency information to a variety of populations.

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