Top 10 Public Health Challenges

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) monitors top public health issues. Here are the top 10 areas of focus as reported by the CDC.

Alcohol-related harms

Approximately 88,000 deaths per year in the United States are attributed to excessive alcohol consumption. The short-term health risks of excessive alcohol use include: injuries such as motor vehicle crashes, falls, drownings and burns; violence such as homicide, suicide and sexual assault; alcohol poisoning; risky sexual behaviors; and miscarriage and stillbirth among pregnant women. Long-term health risks can develop as well: high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease and digestive problems; cancer; learning and memory problems; mental health problems; social problems; and alcoholism.

Food safety

Foodborne illness sickens one in six Americans each year and results in 3,000 deaths. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculates the cost of foodborne illnesses to be $15.6 billion annually. However, foodborne illness is preventable, and the CDC and USDA take a leading role in promoting food safety at the federal level.

Healthcare-associated infections

Healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) happen when patients are being treated in a healthcare facility. Every day, about one in 25 patients in hospitals acquire an HAI such as central line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections and surgical site infections. The CDC and its partners have developed tools and resources to prevent HAIs.

Heart disease and stroke

Both heart disease and stroke are leading causes of death in the United States. About 610,000 people die of heart disease each year. Prevention focuses on addressing high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol and smoking. Meanwhile, there are about 130,000 deaths due to stroke annually. Because stroke can affect mobility, it is a major cause of disability as well.


The number of new HIV diagnoses is declining, but about 44,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in 2014. In total, approximately 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, and about 13 percent do not know they are infected. Nearly 7,000 people per year die from HIV and AIDS. Educating the population about ways to prevent HIV infection, from abstinence to correct use of condoms to never sharing needles, continues to be important.

Motor vehicle injuries

More than 32,000 people die and another 2 million sustain injuries from motor vehicle accidents each year. One-third of deaths involve drunk driving and almost another third involve speeding. The CDC emphasizes seat belt use for adults, car seat use for children and driving without distractions or impairments like alcohol and drugs.

Nutrition, physical activity and obesity

The general population is aware that poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and obesity are causing numerous health problems. The CDC is tackling this complex public health issue beginning with schools, which should provide a quality meal program and ensure only healthy foods and beverages are available to students. As part of obesity prevention, multiple organizations can help individuals know their body mass index, maintain a healthy weight and incorporate physical activity into their lives.

Prescription drug overdose

The CDC reports that deaths from prescription opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone have quadrupled since 1999. In response, the CDC has published prescribing guidelines for healthcare providers and encouraged states to adopt prescription drug monitoring programs. There is a push for expanding addiction treatment.

Teen pregnancy

While the rate of teen pregnancy continues to decrease every year, almost 250,000 babies were born to females ages 15-19 in 2014. Teens need support from parents and other trusted adults, who can play an important role in helping them make healthy choices about relationships and sexual activity, the CDC advises.

Tobacco use

Approximately 16.8 percent of adults ages 18 and older smoke, or 40 million Americans. The percentage continues to decline, but smoking is still a prominent health concern in the United States. It is the leading cause of preventable disease and death. The CDC recommends increasing the price of tobacco products, establishing statewide smoke-free policies to protect nonsmokers from secondhand smoke and sustaining tobacco control program funding.

If you are interested in addressing these health issues, you may want to consider a career in public health. Rivier University offers fully online public health degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels.