How Old Is The Concept Of Public Health?

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Public health is an ancient concept, dating back to the time when people began living in communities. Through the ages, governments have shown varying degrees of concern for the health of citizens. The ancient Greeks and Romans tried to provide clean water via aqueducts (large channels) and pipelines, managed the disposal of waste, and worked to control disease by hiring public physicians to treat the sick. These measures may have helped prevent the spread of certain diseases, but epidemics (widespread outbreaks of disease) still occurred. After the fall of the Roman Empire (c. 476), European civilizations largely ignored matters of public health. As a result, once disease was introduced to a community, it would spread quickly. Thus epidemics of leprosy, the plague, cholera, and yellow fever spread throughout Europe for several centuries.

During the late 1800s, European governments began turning their attention to matters of public health in an effort to control the spread of disease. In the United States, public health became an official concern when, in 1866, a cholera (a serious, often fatal disease of the intestines) epidemic struck the nation for the eighteenth consecutive year. It was part of a worldwide epidemic that persisted for twelve years. Though governments set up health facilities, including laboratories for the study of infectious disease, another cholera pandemic (widespread epidemic) had begun by 1893.

During the twentieth century, measures taken by national governments to safeguard their citizens from health risks have been strengthened by the establishment of regional and local laboratories, public education programs, and research conducted at universities and other institutions. These combined efforts have made outbreaks of highly communicable (spreadable) diseases such as diphtheria, dysentery, typhoid fever, and scarlet fever increasingly less common in developed nations. In developing nations, public health officials continue working with international agencies, such as the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies, to reduce the instances and spread of infectious disease.

Further Information: Parsons, Luise. Health and Medicine. New York: Bookwright Press, 1984; The Public Health Museum in Massachusetts. [Online] Available, September 29, 2000; Plague and Public Health in Renaissance Europe. [Online] Available, September 29, 2000.

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