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In former Allegheny County health director Dixon's honor, put health first

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, March 18, 2013, 10:29 a.m.

A week before he died, Dr. Bruce Dixon told me in a phone call that he wasn't ready to hang up work on his public health projects just yet.

At 74, the former Allegheny County health chief sounded as energetic as ever and was even helping in the care of some patients.

“Let's get together for lunch to talk about it,” he said, and I could picture his quirky smile, his perfect crew cut and that always crisp, clean white shirt.

Men like Dixon — passionate, approachable and honest to a fault — are not easy to find. His unexpected death, however, doesn't mean the issues he championed should fall to the wayside. Quite the opposite.

If we want to honor Dixon — a man whose soothing voice guided our region through countless major health issues, from flu outbreaks to health-related headaches — we should continue to embrace and advocate for those issues. If we believe what Dixon believed in:

Let's take seriously the threat of Legionnaires' disease.

Way before an outbreak of the deadly bacteria hit the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, Dixon pushed for routine testing of water-distribution systems in hospitals. He formed a task force that developed the first guidelines for health-care facilities to monitor Legionella. Dixon never bought the argument that if there are no patients sick with Legionnaires' disease, there are no germs in the system. He believed hospitals ought to look for Legionella even if they don't think they have a problem. In our last conversation, Dixon expressed dismay at the VA and its handling of a recent Legionnaires' outbreak that killed at least five. “It's bad P.R. and I have to think it's bad medicine,” he said.

Let's take seriously the reality of HIV and AIDS.

Before he was appointed health department chief, Dixon spent a great deal of time caring for patients afflicted by HIV. As AIDS began to surge in the 1980s, he led a study to determine the national incidence of the disease. He lobbied for public reporting of the virus, mindful that if you have a handle on how big a problem is, you can better plan services and treatment. Dixon never forgot about patients with HIV or AIDS and made sure they were treated with dignity and respect.

Let's take seriously the problem of infant mortality.

Dixon inherited the Healthy Start program, which helps women properly care for their infants by providing guidance on nutrition, hygiene and how to put them to bed. This is an important program, and he knew it — too many infants were dying, especially black babies. Dixon made sure the program advanced, and in 2000, infant deaths in the county dropped to national averages for the first time. Black babies, however, continue to die at a high rate, something that troubled Dixon.

Let's wash our hands.

When he made rounds at the county jail, where he cared for sick inmates, Dixon regularly told people to wash their hands. He had been, after all, one of the architects of a witty hand-washing campaign using literary classics. The poster campaign worked, and county surveys showed more people began washing their hands before leaving restrooms.

We might not be able to emulate Dixon's expertise, but the least we can do is remember to wash our hands.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or

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