In introducing public health and its history, we aim to explore historical trends in human health and life expectancy and to discuss how public health has evolved over time. The New Yorker article entitled “Sick City” describes the past and current public health threat related to cholera, and highlights how environmental forces, the built environment, the adequacy of water and sanitation systems, and global travel are critical elements shaping our health risks.
1. WATCH: For students who are interested in learning more, we recommend the film The Forgotten Plague: Tuberculosis in America. The significance of tuberculosis in the development of America’s public health system is outlined, as described below:
“By the dawn of the 19th century, the deadliest killer in human history, tuberculosis, had killed one in seven of all the people who had ever lived. The disease struck America with a vengeance, ravaging communities and touching the lives of almost every family. The battle against the deadly bacteria had a profound and lasting impact on the country. It shaped medical and scientific pursuits, social habits, economic development, western expansion, and government policy. Yet both the disease and its impact are poorly understood: in the words of one writer, tuberculosis is our “forgotten plague.”
The decline of tuberculosis as a major cause of morbidity and mortality was largely due to public health efforts, such as improved housing and ventilation, the creation of open spaces such as parks, and the isolation of sick individuals in sanitoriums. These developments led to impressive decreases in tuberculosis-related morbidity and mortality that preceded the development of effective medications against tuberculosis in the 1940s.
The Forgotten Plague