When we do this exercise, we realise that health and disease in
human communities are very complex issues, with many interconnected
causes. We also realise that the ideas of what 'health' and 'disease'
mean are themselves very complicated. When we ask what causes
diseases and how we prevent them, we have to begin by asking what
these notions mean.
Health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being. The
health of an individual is dependent on his/her physical surroundings and
his/her economic status. Diseases are classified as acute or chronic,
depending on their duration. Disease may be due to infectious or noninfectious
causes. Infectious agents belong to different categories of
organisms and may be unicellular and microscopic or multicellular. The
category to which a disease-causing organism belongs decides the type
of treatment. Infectious agents are spread through air, water, physical
contact or vectors. Prevention of disease is more desirable than its
successful treatment. Infectious diseases can be prevented by public
health hygiene measures that reduce exposure to infectious agents.
Infectious diseases can also be prevented by using immunisation.
Effective prevention of infectious diseases in the community requires
that everyone should have access to public hygiene and immunisation.
Traditional Indian and Chinese medicinal systems sometimes
deliberately rubbed the skin crusts from smallpox victims into the skin
of healthy people. They thus hoped to induce a mild form of smallpox
that would create resistance against the disease. Famously, two centuries
ago, an English physician named Edward Jenner, realised that milkmaids
who had had cowpox did not catch smallpox even during epidemics.
Cowpox is a very mild disease. Jenner tried deliberately giving cowpox
to people, and found that they were now resistant to smallpox. This was
because the smallpox virus is closely related to the cowpox virus. 'Cow'
is 'vacca' in Latin, and cowpox is 'vaccinia'. From these roots, the word
'vaccination' has come into our usage.
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