By Alicia Rohan
The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health honored United States Attorney Joyce White Vance as the 2017 recipient of the Lou Wooster Public Health Hero award for her leadership in creating a broad-based response to the heroin epidemic in northern Alabama.
The award is presented annually to recognize an individual, group or organization that is an unconventional public health hero.
“Vance was selected for her leadership in comprehensively addressing the heroin epidemic in metropolitan Birmingham and elsewhere across the state,” said Max Michael, III, M.D., dean of the UAB School of Public Health. “Vance joins uncommon public health heroes, selected because their work falls outside the traditional boundaries of public health, yet has a great impact on the public’s health.”
Vance last week announced that she would retire from the Department of Justice after 25 years as a prosecutor effective midnight Jan. 19.
When few recognized the emerging epidemic of heroin- and opioid-related deaths, Vance, in her role as U.S. attorney, convened the first “Pills to Needles Summit” in June 2014 that overnight galvanized community leaders around this new public health threat.
Through her leadership and determination, she established a new paradigm to address this threat to the public’s health that linked law enforcement, government, academia, public health, victims and advocates. Together these institutions, organizations and individuals have worked a long-term strategy that recognizes the complexities of this epidemic, and is sufficiently flexible to adjust to anticipated but unknown changes in the substances, the populations and the distributors.
Vance was one of the first five U.S. attorneys nominated by President Barack Obama. The Senate confirmed her nomination Aug. 7, 2009. Vance served from 2009 to 2011 on the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee, where she helped to craft Justice Department policy. She presently co-chairs the AGAC’s Criminal Practice Subcommittee and serves on the Civil Rights Subcommittee.
The award is named in honor of Louise Wooster, the 19th century Birmingham madam who risked her life during the 1873 cholera epidemic by staying in the city to care for the sick and dying. A devastating cholera epidemic struck the young city that year, and most residents, including all the local leadership, fled. Wooster’s grit and determination to stay in Birmingham, along with some of the other girls at her house on Morris Avenue, are credited with assuring that there was a Birmingham to which the leadership could return.
Previous winners of the Lou Wooster Public Health Hero Award include state Rep. Patricia Todd, the first openly gay elected official in the state of Alabama; American Electric Power, the Western Hemisphere’s largest burner of coal, for its strong and environmentally collaborative efforts to produce clean energy; the VF Corporation for its decision to rebuild the Wrangler Distribution Center in rural Hackleberg, Alabama, which was destroyed in the April 2013 tornadoes; and Angelou Ezeilo, founder of the Greening Youth Foundation in Atlanta.