Medicine can be broadly categorized into two distinct groups; trauma and health. Western medicine is a product of wartime innovation designed to get soldiers back on the field as soon as possible. When it comes to trauma medicine, Western medicine is the undisputed champion. Health, on the other hand, is where Western medicine falls flat. Chronic degenerative diseases like cancer, heart disease, and obesity-related diseases, have continued their unprecedented explosion decade after decade with few medical interventions able to make any appreciable dent in their rise.
The 20th Century saw the greatest improvement in life expectancy in human history. Trauma played very little role in the low life expectancy of previous centuries, infectious disease being the greatest killer by a huge margin. The prevailing dogma is that we owe this elimination of infectious disease, and the subsequent rise in life expectancy, to the advancements of western medicine but is that the case?
“In general, medical measures (both chemotherapeutic and prophylactic) appear to have contributed little to the overall decline in mortality in the United States since about 1900 – having in many instances been introduced several decades after a marked decline had already set in and having no detectable influence in most instances.. it is estimated that at most 3.5 percent of the total decline in mortality since 1900 could be ascribed to medical measures introduced for the disease considered here (influenza, pneumonia, diptheria, whooping cough, and poliomyelitis).”
Previous centuries were characterized by abject poverty, child and sweatshop labour, malnutrition, cramped living quarters, and a complete lack of the basics of civilization that we take for granted. Most people lived in dilapidated tenements, often filled over capacity, infested with rodents, critters and with no running water. Everyone, including women and children, worked 12, 14, or even 18 hour days in dangerous jobs ranging from mines to manufacturing.
What little food was available was often contaminated, rotten, or diseased causing widespread illness among the population. Basic advances like pasteurization, safe food handling, refrigeration, electricity, and clean running water did not go into widespread use until the early 20th Century.
Breeding Grounds for Infectious Disease
“It is not strange that health improves when the population gives up
using diluted sewage as the principle beverage.”
– Dr. Thurman Rice, 1932
Without sewage systems, water treatment, or adequate waste disposal systems city streets filled with sewage, dead animals, and human waste. Malnutrition, and overcrowding combined with this environment of filth to create breeding grounds for every type of infectious disease. Cholera epidemics, caused entirely by contaminated water pumps occurred regularly.
To solve the repeated cycles of epidemics cities across the west embarked on ambitious sanitation projects beginning towards the end of the 19th century and accelerating into the 20th century. Sewage drainage, water filtration systems, plumbing of clean water, and waste disposal radically transformed what had previously been breeding grounds for infectious disease into livable cities.
Eliminating Infectious Disease
All across the West, simultaneously, advancements in sanitation, hygiene and our understanding of nutrition decreased the rate of epidemics and their lethality. Further advancements like pasteurization, electricity, transportation, refrigeration, food inspection, water filtration, indoor plumbing, and a variety of other non-medical advances systematically reduced infectious disease everywhere that they rolled out.
The first real medical intervention for infectious diseases occurred with the invention of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1944. By then, infectious diseases had declined by more than 90% as a result of the myriad advances that had taken place on a civilizational level.
Today, everywhere on Earth that does not yet have these fundamental building blocks of human health, sanitation, hygiene, and nutrition, still suffer from epidemics of infectious disease just as the first world did in previous centuries. Human health is not achieved through medical interventions, but rather environmental interventions as has been thoroughly demonstrated and documented with the advance of western civilization.