National Public Health Week – Celebrating Ten Great Public Health Achievements

Since 1900, the average lifespan of persons in the United States has lengthened by greater than 30 years; 25 years of this gain are attributable to advances in public health (1).  Much of that 25-year increase in life expectancy attributed to public health can be tied the 10 of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.   These achievements were highlighted in an April 1999, report issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and include the following advancements.

Ten Great Public Health Achievements — United States, 1900-1999

  • Vaccination

    • Vaccinations resulted in the eradication of smallpox; elimination of poliomyelitis in the Americas; and control of measles, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, Haemophilus influenza type b, and other infectious diseases in the United States and other parts of the world.
  • Motor-vehicle safety

    • Improvements in motor-vehicle safety have resulted from engineering efforts to make both vehicles and highways safer and from successful efforts to change personal behavior (e.g., increased use of safety belts, child safety seats, and motorcycle helmets and decreased drinking and driving). These efforts have contributed to large reductions in motor-vehicle-related deaths (2).
  • Safer workplaces

    • Work-related health problems, such as coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung), and silicosis — common at the beginning of the century — have come under better control. Severe injuries and deaths related to mining, manufacturing, construction, and transportation also have decreased; since 1980, safer workplaces have resulted in a reduction of approximately 40% in the rate of fatal occupational injuries (3).
  • Control of infectious diseases

    • Control of infectious diseases has resulted from clean water and improved sanitation. Infections such as typhoid and cholera transmitted by contaminated water, a major cause of illness and death early in the 20th century, have been reduced dramatically by improved sanitation. In addition, the discovery of antimicrobial therapy has been critical to successful public health efforts to control infections such as tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
  • A decline in deaths from coronary heart disease and stroke

    • The decline in deaths from coronary heart disease and stroke have resulted from risk-factor modification, such as smoking cessation and blood pressure control coupled with improved access to early detection and better treatment. Since 1972, death rates for coronary heart disease have decreased by 51% (4).
  • Safer and healthier foods

    • Since 1900, safer and healthier foods have resulted from decreases in microbial contamination and increases in nutritional content. Identifying essential micronutrients and establishing food-fortification programs have almost eliminated major nutritional deficiency diseases such as rickets, goiter, and pellagra in the United States.
  • Healthier mothers and babies

    • Healthier mothers and babies have resulted from better hygiene and nutrition, availability of antibiotics, greater access to health care, and technologic advances in maternal and neonatal medicine. Since 1900, infant mortality has decreased by 90%, and maternal mortality has decreased by 99%.
  • Family planning

    • Access to family planning and contraceptive services has altered the social and economic roles of women. Family planning has provided health benefits such as smaller family size and longer interval between the birth of children; increased opportunities for preconceptional counseling and screening; fewer infant, child, and maternal deaths; and the use of barrier contraceptives to prevent pregnancy and transmission of human immunodeficiency virus and other STDs.
  • Fluoridation of drinking water

    • Fluoridation of drinking water began in 1945 and in 1999 reaches an estimated 144 million persons in the United States. Fluoridation safely and inexpensively benefits both children and adults by effectively preventing tooth decay, regardless of socioeconomic status or access to care. Fluoridation has played an important role in the reductions in tooth decay (40%-70% in children) and of tooth loss in adults (40%-60%) (5).
  • Recognition of tobacco use as a health hazard

    • Recognition of tobacco use as a health hazard and subsequent public health anti-smoking campaigns have resulted in changes in social norms to prevent initiation of tobacco use, promote cessation of use, and reduce exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. Since the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on the health risks of smoking, the prevalence of smoking among adults has decreased, and millions of smoking-related deaths have been prevented (6).

Reported by: CDC.

  1. Bunker JP, Frazier HS, Mosteller F. Improving health: measuring effects of medical care. Milbank Quarterly 1994;72:225-58.
  2. Bolen JR, Sleet DA, Chorba T, et al. Overview of efforts to prevent motor vehicle-related injury. In: Prevention of motor vehicle-related injuries: a compendium of articles from the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 1985-1996. Atlanta, Georgia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, 1997.
  3. CDC. Fatal occupational injuries –UnitedStates, 1980-1994. MMWR 1998;47:297-302.
  4. Anonymous. The sixth report of the Joint National Committee on Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Pressure. Arch Intern Med 1997;157:2413-46.
  5. Burt BA, Eklund SA. Dentistry, dental practice, and the community. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: WB Saunders Company, 1999:204-20.
  6. Public Health Service. For a healthy nation: returns on investment in public health. Atlanta, Georgia: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and CDC, 1994.