The public health approach to reducing injury is sound and has resulted in major improvements in motor vehicle safety. In fact, according to data released last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic deaths have dropped to the lowest level since 1949. 

How did we do it? We made roads and vehicles safer. We also worked to better understand human behavior and adopted programs to keep unsafe drivers off the road. This required time, money and ingenuity, but it was well worth the investment.

This week, Congress is debating, among a range of funding priorities, the value of continuing our important investment in public health. How timely since this is National Public Health Week, when we celebrate our accomplishments in protecting and improving the health of our nation. 

During this year’s observance, we are focusing on the leading cause of death for people ages 1-44: injury. Like our success with improved motor vehicle safety, we need sustained investments to get results.

Unfortunately, some in Congress are shortsighted. Yes, we’re in a financial hole, but you don’t just stop digging to get out. You still need to make smart investments to get a strong return. 

Proposing reckless cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and other public health agencies only hurts our cause both in the short- and long-term. These agencies protect us, save lives and reduce our overall costs.

Imagine a future where we had thousands of deaths from a new infectious disease because we ravaged support for our national disease control efforts. Imagine returning to 1950s-era air pollution and levels of toxic lead in the environment. 

Imagine if in just a few years, cancer death rates increased because we cut our support for early identification and preventive screenings. This is the reality we face if we sit back and let Congress eviscerate the budgets of our core public health agencies.

Instead, Congress ought to wisely invest in proven prevention strategies now that will pay dividends down the line. Research shows that for every dollar spent on prevention, $5 are returned. Congress must also protect the investments we’ve already made through the Prevention and Public Health Fund included in the Affordable Care Act. 

Efforts to redirect mandatory funding to non-health related initiatives will severely threaten the public health successes we’ve made in recent years and hamper the capacity of our local health departments to support critical disease and injury prevention programs as intended under the law.

The Prevention and Public Health Fund was designed to ensure a stable funding stream for public health and anticipated funding challenges just like we have today. It was designed to provide a safety net for the nation to ensure we could continue to make investments in prevention and wellness even in difficult financial times. 

It also is a wise investment that takes the comprehensive model we used to reduce motor vehicle deaths and injuries and applies it to chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and cancer. By improving the nutrition of our population, increasing physical activity and reducing tobacco use we can save lives and we can save money. We can in fact stop digging the fiscal hole we are in and ensure our future prosperity with shrewd investments in prevention.

History shows that protecting our nation’s health and safety can deliver enormous return on investment in terms of lives saved and disabilities mitigated. We’ve come too far and gained too much to deny ourselves this next opportunity to make prevention work. We’re safer — and our kids are safer — thanks to public health and prevention.

Dr. Georges C. Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association. He and other experts will be discussing injury prevention during a National Public Health Week Hill briefing Tuesday, April 5, at 10:30 a.m. in the Capital Visitors Center SVC 208/209.