‘Public Health Legend’ Dr. Jean Marie Malecki Honored With Distinguished Alumna Award

One of the first American public health officials to deal with a bioterrorism attack in the United States recently received the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Department of Public Health Sciences.

Jean Marie Malecki, M.D., M.P.H., received her Master of Public Health degree from the Miller School of Medicine in 1986. In the early days of the School’s Department of Public Health Sciences, she also taught epidemiology, biostatistics and public health, and she remained an adjunct professor until 2009. Since 1991, she has spent her career championing advanced public health care initiatives as Director of the Palm Beach County Health Department.

Malecki rose to national prominence when she played a key role responding to the 2001 anthrax attacks at American Media in Boca Raton. After one of American Media’s editors died, it was Malecki who cited anthrax as the probable cause, even though federal and state officials disagreed. She decided to quarantine the company’s building and mobilized a team within the health department that definitively diagnosed anthrax as the cause. She also led the emergency management response team that sought to reassure a nervous public and prevent further attacks.

For her courage and leadership during the attack, Malecki received the U.S. Presidential Citation for curtailing the risk from bioterrorism.

Dr. Malecki has received numerous other awards in recognition of her contributions to the fields of public health and preventive medicine:

• In 2000, she was named an Outstanding Woman in Public Health by the University of South Florida.

• In 2002, she received the J. Howard Beard Award from the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

• In 2004, the National Library of Medicine, the American Medical Women’s Association and U.S. Representative Robert Wexler (D-FL) recognized her as a “Local Legend” who was “changing the face of medicine.”

As the director of the largest county health department in Florida, Malecki has led efforts to fight West Nile virus and a local outbreak of malaria, all with her trademark optimism and energy that have brought the county health department nationwide recognition for innovation and quality of service. In 1995, she co-discovered and led the public health response to a local outbreak of Cyclospora, a parasite imported from South America.

Malecki has also helped launch the Healthy Start Program, with nurses providing in-home counseling to pregnant women and continued health guidance after birth. The first-of-its-kind universal program was available to any woman who was discharged from a Palm Beach County hospital. The federal government subsequently invested $5 billion in a nationwide rollout of the program.

She helped create a comprehensive AIDS program, providing clinical care, dental care and housing assistance to people with HIV and AIDS. The program also provided psychological counseling and, in a first, spiritual counseling to patients struggling with AIDS, a disease that at the time was usually fatal.

As a board member of the Health Care District of Palm Beach County, Malecki was instrumental in bringing universal trauma treatment to her county, including a now-legendary helicopter named “Trauma Hawk.” She also co-led successful efforts to bring registered nurses to all county schools, and helped create a hospital to serve impoverished populations in Belle Glade.

Responding to being honored by the Department of Public Health Sciences, Malecki said that “being recognized by my peers at my alma mater is truly one of the greatest honors I have ever received.” She added that her accomplishments “were always the result of working as a member of extremely compassionate and dedicated teams.”

José Szapocznik, Ph.D., Chair Emeritus of the Department of Public Health Sciences, added, “The department has many prominent alumni. Each year, one of these individuals is selected for our Distinguished Contribution Award. We are very proud of Dr. Malecki who for many years has been a public health legend. One of President Julio Frenk’s top aspirations for UM is that it become ‘exemplary.’ I cannot think of anyone who lives up to that standard better than Dr. Malecki, a dear colleague whom we all aspire to emulate.”

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