By Chris Adams

Blind Willie Johnson was a blues guitarist in the first half of last century who only lived to age 48.

He had a range of health ailments, although it was malaria that ultimately did him in. When he contracted the disease, no hospital would admit him.

So, yes, malaria killed Johnson, said Dr. Sandro Galea, an author and the dean of the Boston University School of Public Health. But it was really something bigger at work – poverty, access to care, racism.

“It is the forces around us that ultimately cause health,” said Galea.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Galea (bio, Twitter, Amazon page) laid out some of the most compelling data sets in the world of public health. Galea shared a range of statistics that show, for example, how the inequality in life expectancy is widening for women; the richest quintile has seen expectancy go up, while the poorest has seen it drop.

Or how the prevalence of diabetes changes dramatically depending on where in a town you live. In his hometown of Boston, for example, adults who live near one subway stop have a 2 percent chance of having diabetes; at another subway stop, it’s 11 percent.

He also talked about public health success stories, such as the major public triumph in reducing car deaths. In the last several decades, the number of deaths per miles driven has plummeted, due to the introduction of seat belts to campaigns to reduce drunk driving. What government – and society – didn’t really do was teach people how to drive better. Rather, the focus was on changing the driving environment around them.