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Dr Regina Benjamin, nominated earlier this week by President Obama to be the next Surgeon General of the U.S., has said she plans to be a voice for change in the healthcare system, inspired by the loss of her family to preventable diseases.
The president said that Benjamin's personal history working with the poor and fighting for their access to healthcare makes her uniquely qualified to understand the crisis facing the nation and called her "a relentless promoter of prevention and wellness programs."
In her acceptance speech, Dr Benjamin said that it was too hard for doctors and other healthcare providers to provide care to their patients and too expensive for Americans to get adequate healthcare.
"I want to ensure that no one, no one falls through the cracks as we improve our health care system," she said.
"My family's not here with me today - at least not in person - because of preventable diseases," she continued. "While I can't - or I cannot change my family's past, I can be a voice in the movement to improve our nation's health care and our nation's health for the future."
Benjamin's closest family members died of preventable diseases. As technology has improved superior blood tests and screening methods have been developed, which can often mean a difference in outcome if the disease is caught early.
Her father died of diabetes and hypertension when she was nine years old. Diabetes is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. The National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse reports that it was the seventh-leading cause of death in the nation, but that since it contributes heavily to cardiovascular disease and stroke, it may be underreported.
According to reports, diabetes cost the U.S. $174 billion including time lost from work and reduced productivity as well as direct medical care. Adding in undiagnosed diabetes and people with pre-diabetic conditions and the costs can go as high as $218 billion.
Diabetes is better controlled through early diagnosis and monitoring. A C-peptide test can be used to assess hypoglycemia. Diabetes can be confirmed by insulin testing and other blood work.
Benjamin's brother died of HIV-related complications.
HIV remains a major threat both globally and in the U.S. Some 33 million people globally are infected with HIV today, with approximately 1.1 million of them living in America, according to the AIDS charity organization Avert.
HIV testing can make a huge difference in controlling the spread of the disease. Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases are studying whether a method of immediately treating everyone who tests positive for the disease, called "test and treat", could end the pandemic in 40 years.
Unfortunately, not enough of the U.S. population has responded to encouragement to get tested.
A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 48 percent of HIV-positive adolescents and young adults are unaware they are infected. In addition, only 22 percent of sexually active high school adolescents ever get testing for the virus.
The role of the Surgeon General is mostly ceremonial - it has no political or legislative power. However, Benjamin would be serving as the nation's premiere health educator and can encourage people to pay more attention to their health and promote testing and screening in the public mind.
Dr Linda Rosenstock, dean of the UCLA School of Public Health, praised the decision to nominate Benjamin to the Los Angeles Times, saying, "She understands well the value of prevention, which is going to be the cornerstone of any healthcare reform, if it's going to make sense."
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