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What is the Public Health Act?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A number of pieces of legislation around the world go by the name “Public Health Act,” reflecting a global interest in maintaining public health and in creating legislation that funds public health initiatives, codifies major public health concerns, and establishes government agencies to oversee public health issues. Several nations have multiple such acts, reflecting changing concerns and attitudes about public health and disease, along with the need for new legislation to cope with the emergence of new public health threats.

The most famous of these laws is probably the Public Health Act of 1848, passed in Great Britain. This landmark piece of legislation emerged in response to Edwin Chadwick's famous Sanitary Report. Chadwick made an exhaustive survey of Britain, identifying a number of sanitation issues, especially in urban areas, and suggesting that the government needed to take steps to protect public health to avoid future epidemics of disease and generally unsanitary conditions.

Under this act, formal boards of public health were created, and the responsibility of communities was made clear. Rather than leaving sanitation up to chance, the law mandated the formal organization of water supplies, sewers, and garbage collection, with the goal of keeping communities cleaner, safer, and more pleasant to live in. The act had a number of weak points, but it marked the beginning of a shift in attitudes about sanitation, with nations beginning to recognize that public health could not be left up to chance.

Another Public Health Act was passed in Britain in 1875, specifically addressing urban sanitation issues, particularly substandard living conditions. It created a more rigorous building code to address egregious violations, making British cities safer and more wholesome for their residents. As contemporary writings indicate, this act was sorely needed and probably could have been more strongly worded.

The United States also passed a notable public health law in the form of the Public Health Service Act in 1946, when it organized public health services in the United States and created better funding for public health. The act has been amended a number of times to add funding for additional causes and to better define public health threats and policies. Those interested in reading it for themselves can consult Title 42 of the United States Code, and prepare for a long read. Title 42 also addresses public welfare and some civil rights issues.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Mor — On Jul 09, 2011

@KoiwiGal - One of the reasons Edwin Chadwick wanted to reform and centralize sanitation was because he thought it would save money in the long run.

And he is probably right. While people argue about having a "nanny state" in reality public health concerns can have a lot of impact on a wide range of people who didn't necessarily contribute to the problem.

A similar example is smoking. Second hand smoke can cause health problems in people who don't smoke, and drive up insurance premiums and use up health care and so on. Which is why smoking in public places like restaurants is mostly banned now.

The same thinking can be applied to the developing world. It would cost a lot less to put in permanent sewers than to continually fight the malaria that results from standing water.

The trouble is finding the funds to do either of those things.

By KoiwiGal — On Jul 09, 2011

That first public health act in 1848 should be considered one of the turning points of the modern age. Before then (and probably after then for some time) it was considered acceptable to just throw sewerage and other garbage out the window.

I've lived in a country where sewerage and garbage isn't regulated. It's something that gets taken for granted in developed countries, but it's not uncommon to have open sewers or no sewers at all in developing countries.

People just get used to it. And it causes the spread of disease.

I wish that there was an Edwin Chadwick alive today who could prompt people to start trying to create functioning public health regulations in every country.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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