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With almost 400 National Park Service (NPS) sites and hundreds of millions of visits per year, a large potential exists for exposure to disease agents within the NPS system.

The National Park Service Office of Public Health (OPH) is an internal agency-specific public health capability, managed, funded and operated by NPS.  This program is primarily staffed with commissioned officers on detail to the agency from the United States Public Health Service and is a national activity headquartered in Washington, DC with field staff located across the NPS system.

Through disease surveillance and response, on-site evaluation/hazard analysis, consultation, policy guidance, and coordination with local, state and other federal health jurisdictions, OPH professionals assist park superintendents to protect and promote visitor health in the frontcountry and backcountry/wilderness.

The NPS OPH conducts work in all of the following primary programmatic areas:
  1. Environmental Health - OPH field staff assist park units with the identification and reduction or elimination of public health hazards through comprehensive on-site evaluations and consultations that focus on four priorities.
    • Drinking Water - The NPS owns and operates approximately 1,300 drinking water systems. On-site visits are used to evaluate the degree of control that park units have over critical drinking water safety issues and to provide guidance about compliance with applicable regulatory requirements.
    • Wastewater - The NPS operates a wide variety of wastewater facilities, ranging from pit privies to advanced wastewater treatment plants. OPH professionals conduct plan reviews and evaluate the operation and maintenance of these systems. Compliance with primacy agency regulations is also evaluated and communicated to park unit managers.
    • Food Safety - Food service facilities of all types, both permanent and temporary, are evaluated by OPH professionals. Consultation is provided to concessioners in risk reduction and strategies for reducing the potential of foodborne illness, chemical poisoning, or accidental injury.
    • Backcountry Operations - The basic National Park Service policies for food, water, and waste sanitation are stated in Directors Order 83, sections A, B, and C and are delineated in greater detail in the accompanying reference manual to each section above. However, there are numerous activities which occur in the backcountry of many National Parks, that sometimes create sanitation issues that require solutions different than those for more permanent facilities. Examples of such activities include but are not limited to, white water rafting, horse packing, bicycle tours, jeep tours, snowmobile tours, trail crews, and backcountry ranger cabins. While conditions in the backcountry are often different from developed areas, the basic principles of disease prevention are the same (e.g. the need to control the growth of disease causing microorganisms by properly treating drinking water and/or by maintaining foods at proper temperature).
    • Recreational Waters - Bathing Beaches, Swimming Pools and Spas, both permanent and seasonal, are evaluated by OPH professionals. Consultation is provided to concessioners in risk reduction and strategies for reducing the potential of waterborne illness, chemical poisoning, or accidental injury.
    • Zoonotic and Vectorborne Diseases - OPH staff work with wildlife health and (IPM) coordinators to identify diseases of animal origin that might be transmitted to people and determine the best risk reduction strategy consistent with NPS management policy.

  2. Disease Detection and Response - The OPH conducts investigations of disease outbreaks that occur in the National Park System. Supported by a medical epidemiologist, OPH staff work with park units to detect disease transmission, limit impact, investigate root causes, and utilize this information to improve visitor protection. Diseases and Illnesses can be caused by Infectious Agents (Waterborne, Foodborne & Vectorborne) or Chemical and Environmental Agents such Fish Advisories.

  3. Comprehensive Public Health Protection and Promotion - OPH staff work with programs, regions, and parks to identify all public health issues and to design and implement effective and efficient intervention strategies. Park Rx (park prescriptions) are programs designed in collaboration with healthcare providers and community partners that utilize parks, trails, and open space for the purpose of improving individual and community health. Other community and environmental nonprofits and local businesses may support free programming for patients and communities as it connects with a patient’s park prescriptions.

  4. Emergency Preparedness and Response - The OPH provides leadership and coordination of NPS preparedness initiatives for public health emergencies. Public health officers serve as ready responders providing public health services during natural disasters and intentional acts.
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