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  • Writer's pictureHenry Edwards

The 21 Gratitudes for the 21st Century: To Your (Public) Health!

There are SO many ways to die. Luckily for you and me, it's harder to die these days. One way to see this is to compare mortality statistics from the past with today's stats.

I checked out the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina website. Mortality statistics from 1900 and 2010 are compared. Here in the US people died from all kinds of things that kill few people nowadays. The three leading causes of death in 1900 were from infectious diseases: pneumonia, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infections. Nowadays, none of the leading causes of death, save pneumonia and flu in the old, are from infectious diseases.

Why is this the case? The short answer: public health. 

One reason I am so enthusiastic about gratitude for progress is because most of us do not see it...and I want to make people see it. My third gratitude for the 21st Century is public health. You might say “What a boring topic,” or even “What is public health?” Here’s the long definition, posited by Charles-Edward A. Winslow one hundred years ago: “The science and art of preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical health and efficiency through organized community efforts for the sanitation of the environment, the control of community infections, the education of the individual in principles of personal hygiene, the organization of medical and nursing service for the early diagnosis and preventive treatment of disease, and the development of the social machinery which will ensure to every individual in the community a standard of living adequate for the maintenance of health." 

I’m guessing that you don’t think about public health too much. This is because public health programs are now part of the background of civilization, but two hundred years ago—a tiny fraction of human history—there was little public health.

Public health progress may be the reason you and I are here on earth. Early in civilization it became clear that the concentration of people in cities led to two big problems: poor water quality and the accumulation of human waste. These two problems of course went together. Many of the deadliest diseases of human history--cholera, typhoid, dysentary--are caused by infections carried by unsanitary drinking water.

Public health improvements changed all that. Here's a short history of public health to give you a sense of how much the world has changed for the better:

Hand washing...something humans didn't do much of for most of history. How did it become a habit (after using the bathroom and before meals)? Ignaz Semmelweis, a doctor at the Vienna General Hospital in the early 1800s, noticed that the children born in one maternity ward died of fever more often than children born in another ward. He noticed that the ward where more babies died of fever was also attended by physicians who handled corpses. He made the insight that hands might carry infection, so he required his doctors wash their hands with chlorinated water. Fever declined sharply. Today hand washing is a near-universal habit around the world that saves millions of lives.

Waterborne disease: John Snow was a London physician who carefully studied the epidemiology of the London cholera outbreaks during his time, the mid-1800s. During the 1854 cholera outbreak, Snow investigated where the victims lived--and where they gathered their water--and deduced that the Broad Street pump was the source. The pump was closed and infections plummeted. Snow demonstrated that diseases were spread through tainted water.

The toilet: How do you keep cholera and other diseases spread by feces in check? Toilets! Today most people on the planet have access to toilets, and that's a very good thing. Besides the mess and smell that public defecation caused for most of history, there's the disease. And cholera is the worst, but many other diseasesare spread by human feces like dysentery, E coli diarrhea, salmonella, rotavirus, norovirus, hepatitis A and E, giardia, cryptosporidium,  pinworms, ascariasis and tapeworms. Now there's some good reasons to have toilets! 

Thanks to public health programs, our water is clean and our sewage gets flushed. Nowadays we die from degenerative diseases like heart disease and cancer. (And rates of death from these diseases have been decreasing thanks to progress in the medical sciences.) 

So take some time to thank your lucky stars for Ignaz Semmelweis, John Snow, and toilets. Public health ain't so boring anymore!

My book, The Daily Better: 365 Reasons for Optimism, is available for preorder at Amazon

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