- 22 February 2024
Today is the 175th anniversary of the 1848 Public Health Act. This piece of legislation is a milestone in the history of public health, highlighting for the first time the importance of population-level policies and proactive measures to protect the health of the nation.
Despite all the technological changes and scientific breakthroughs seen in the past centuries, the ideas discussed in the act are still remarkably contemporary. The act is mostly known for introducing a sanitary revolution, where the provision of clean water and improved sewerage were priorities, but it also introduced ideas that are still central to public health today, such as food safety, adequate housing and the need for public health to be managed locally.
The 1848 Public Health Act was influenced by the lack of sanitation in Victorian cities and the 1831-1832 cholera outbreaks. The concept behind the act was that the health of working people was determined by the environment where they lived. And 175 years later, such a concept is still relevant: we know that socioeconomic status and level of deprivation, areas people live in, housing and employment play an important role in our health status. And if the cholera outbreak of 1832 highlighted the relationship between disease, poverty and destitution, the Covid-19 pandemic shed light on the stark health inequalities in the UK and how worse health outcomes are for those living in our most deprived communities.
The challenges we face in 2023 are far more complex than the ones we faced 175 years ago: even though we live longer, there is a significant gap in healthy life expectancy between those living in the most and least deprived areas of the country. Protecting our environment and our water streams has become a priority due to climate change and pollution. We now know that health inequalities are an intricate issue, and tackling those requires that we all understand public health is everyone’s responsibility.
However, these challenges can be addressed. Further support for local authorities and the public health workforce can positively impact our healthy life expectancy. The development of strategies that tackle health inequalities, such as vaccine programmes that assist the needs of underserved communities, can help close the gap. And the RSPH is proud to be part of the solution, offering support with our qualifications, educational services, policy and programmes.
The 1848 Public Health Act revolutionised the public’s health 175 years ago. We must commit to addressing the complex issues we face today so that in another 175 years' time we continue celebrating the importance of prevention, promotion, and protection whilst living in a more prosperous and healthier society.
William Roberts (Chief Executive, RSPH) says: “Today is the 175th anniversary of the 1848 Public Health Act, a milestone in the history of public health. It revolutionised the way we promote health as a nation, and it is remarkable that some of its ideas are still central to the public's health today, such as food safety, the importance of adequate housing, and the fact that the environment where we live influences our health. Whilst the challenges we face today are more complex than the ones we faced 175 years ago, and health inequalities are dire, the RSPH is proud to offer solutions to these challenges through our qualifications, educational services, policy, and programmes. The UK must commit to addressing the complex issues we face today so that in another 175 years’ time we can continue celebrating the importance"