Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Prevention or Pretension?

By Benson Riddle

When the great Dutch scholar Erasmus famously wrote that “prevention is better than cure” around 500 years ago, he didn’t exactly have orthomolecular medicine and high colonics in mind.

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Preventive medicine, as the American College of Preventive Medicine defines it, aims “to protect, promote, and maintain health and well-being and to prevent disease, disability, and death.” These may be lofty goals, yet they have been well and truly realised by some of medical science’s greatest achievements: John Snow’s linking of a cholera outbreak to a water pump in London; Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine; Louis Pasteur’s development of pasteurisation; and Joseph Lister’s pioneering of antiseptic surgery. Such examples demonstrate the concept known as primary prevention: the aim of preventing disease or injury before it ever occurs. The impact that just these few examples have had on the astonishing post-Industrial Age increase in human life expectancy is truly remarkable.

Modern medicine also engages in what is termed “secondary prevention”. Here, the aim is to reduce the impact of a disease or injury that has already occurred by detecting and treating it as soon as possible in order to stop or slow its progress. Common examples include cancer screening, blood pressure monitoring and hepatitis C case-finding in intravenous drug users. Such screening is usually undertaken at the level of individual doctor–patient encounters or via public health screening programs.

Tertiary prevention then seeks to enhance quality of life by softening the impact of an...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.