10 Health Advances That Changed the World

Whether it's the technology that allows us to peer deep into the body or medicines that extend the lives of those with chronic diseases, it's easy to see how advances in health and medicine have touched the lives of nearly every person on the planet.

Yet considering the ubiquitous nature of these developments, it is easy to see how many people take for granted the technologies and practices that, at one point or another, almost certainly saved their own lives or the lives of people they've loved.

The list below encompasses 10 advances in health and medical practices that have changed -- and in many ways continue to change -- the world today.

Vaccines

Throughout history, communicable diseases have had a tremendous impact on human history. So too, then, has the development of one of the most effective ways to defend against rampant viral infection -- vaccination.

Dr. Edward Jenner first introduced the idea of vaccinations in 1796, when he successfully prevented a young English boy from getting smallpox.

The concept of vaccination was propelled further by scientists such as Louis Pasteur, and in the modern era, when large groups of soldiers were successfully vaccinated in World War I and II against such diseases as tetanus, diphtheria and typhus.

"Polio vaccine is one that people think of because it had such an impact," said Dr. Jeffrey Baker, director of the history of medicine program at the Duke University School of Medicine.

But from the global health standpoint, Baker said Jenner's introduction of the smallpox vaccine may have had an even more significant impact in terms of lives saved.

Surgical Anesthetic and Antisepsis

Without a doubt, surgery used to be a much graver proposition than it is today. One of the chief reasons for this is that before the middle of the 19th century, anesthetic simply wasn't an option.

That changed Oct. 16, 1846, when William T.G. Morton demonstrated the mysterious wonder of ether -- a substance powerful enough to dull the pain and agony that had long been associated with surgery.

But while anesthetic was a great advance in and of itself, another advance that occurred at roughly the same time may have been even more beneficial -- antisepsis, or the creation of a sterile surgical environment.

"Anesthetic made it possible to operate on a patient without pain," Baker notes, "but without antisepsis they'd die anyway."

Clean Water and Improved Sanitation

Put them beside surgical advances and other cutting-edge technologies, and public health measures don't look so sexy. But the fact is that clean water and sanitation have likely saved millions -- perhaps billions -- of lives since they were widely implemented in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"It's something that's so important around the world and in America," Baker said. "It used to be that 15 percent of infants would die, and the biggest reason for this was diarrhea brought about by unclean water and milk."

Clean water and public health measures dramatically cut down the incidence of such deadly water-borne diseases as cholera and improved sanitation, drastically lowering the health impacts of parasitic infections and other health conditions related to the environment.

Antibiotics and Antivirals

As with vaccination, the advent of antibiotics hailed a new era in the treatment of communicable disease.

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