The importance of public health services is best exemplified by what occurs when they are absent, and for many, the Bubonic Plague of the mid 1300s serves as the definitive example of that.
The poor sanitation and substandard health practices associated with the Middle Ages would culminate in a deadly epidemic, responsible for wiping out at least a third of the population of Europe. It’s considered the worst natural disaster ever to befall the continent, but it hastened the fall of feudalism and served as a wake-up call to the people.
They realized their health standards were somewhat lacking, and that things needed to change. One could say the Black Death, for all its devastation, spurred the advances in public health that have saved so many lives since.
The rise of public health services
‘Public Health’ is a modern concept, even if the ideas behind it are more ancient. It arose from the establishment of governmental organizations and their assumption of the responsibilities that had previously fallen on religious institutions, such as informing the public on health issues and providing health care services.
In the United States, the role of ‘public health nurse’ first emerged in Los Angeles in 1898. By 1924 there were 12,000 public health nurses spread throughout America’s cities, as well as thousands of additional nurses under the employment of private agencies.
The rise of public health services in developed nations brought about a dramatic decrease in infectious diseases and infant mortality rates, leading to a boost in population growth. Consequently, the 20th century saw public health services devote more of their attention to the treatment of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease, which had begun to replace infectious diseases as leading causes of death.
The World Health Organization, a United Nations agency dedicated to international public health, considers the primary functions of public health services to include:
- Coordinating efforts towards the betterment of public health
- Promoting research
- Formulating and enacting public health policy
- Monitoring public health
The public health sector is also tasked with evaluating the quality of services provided by health care institutions, and supporting such institutions in their planning and provision of services.
Raising awareness of health issues is an important part of public health. World Health Day is an annual celebration intended to do exactly that. It’s sponsored by the World Health Organization and each year is dedicated to a specific health concern. For example, the focus of World Health Day 2011 was the threat of antibiotic resistance, whereby various bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics that are designed to kill them, while the theme of 2012 was the effects of aging.
Amazing achievements in public health
Edward Anthony Jenner’s development of the smallpox vaccine in the 18th century is considered one of the most significant achievements in public health.
Though there’s evidence to suggest that a type of smallpox inoculation was available in Ancient India and China as early as 1000 B.C, such methods were unknown to the west until Jenner’s discovery, which not only led to the eventual eradication of smallpox, but which also paved the way for all the life-saving vaccinations that followed.
Combating infectious diseases is only one aspect of public health. For all the talk about plague and pestilence in the Middle Ages, there were less dramatized but far deadlier issues. Occupational hazards were both more numerous and more likely to claim lives, and childbirth was a leading cause of death amongst women. Some of the greatest public health care achievements in the 20th century include a 99% decrease in maternal mortality and a 90% decrease in infant mortality, as well as a 40% reduction of fatal occupational injuries.
Improvements in sanitation, advances in nutritional knowledge, improved vehicle safety measures and the recognition of tobacco as a health hazard are all immense achievements in public health care, every bit as essential as the eradication of certain infectious diseases.
Pursuing a career in public health
Public health graduates could find work in a number of areas, including:
- Emergency response
- Vaccination programs for epidemics such as malaria
- Educating people in developing countries about health care issues
- Occupational health and safety
- Research into health care issues such as the link between nutrition and obesity.
- Study of factors contributing to cancer
Public health is currently considered one of the fastest growing health-related careers in the world. The work is challenging, but you’ll never have a better opportunity to make a big difference to the world.
Matthew Flax writes about the importance of Public Health, having played enough games of Civilization to know that a healthy populace is a happy populace.