This year marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 7 April 1948. During a conference to set up the United Nations, it was proposed that a global health organisation be established to promote health and advocate for healthcare the world over.
World Health Day is an excellent opportunity to pay it forward and show appreciation for healthcare providers who work on the frontline daily. Whether you are a Bp user or not, we would like to extend our utmost gratitude to all the healthcare providers out there.
With this milestone anniversary, we thought we’d use it as an opportunity to take a trip down memory lane and revisit some significant milestones in Australasian healthcare history, recognising events, programs and initiatives that have brought us to where we are today.
St Helens Hospitals - 1905
We begin just after the turn of the 20th century, Following the New Zealand government’s enaction of the 1904 Midwives Act, which enabled the training and registration of midwives by the Health Department. As a result, seven state-owned maternity hospitals were opened to train midwives and provide maternity care for the wives of working men.
Named after St Helens in Lancashire, England, the seven hospitals were the first of their kind anywhere in the world. The first hospital was opened in Wellington on May 29, 1905, and subsequent hospitals were opened in Auckland, Christchurch, Dunedin, Gisborne, Invercargill and Wanganui.
The services provided by St Helens Hospitals were gradually incorporated into other hospitals, and the last of the hospitals to close was Auckland, in 1990.
School Dental Services - 1921
Following World War One, the New Zealand Government instituted a state-funded School Dental Service to combat the nation’s poor oral health. Two years later, an entirely female draft of dental nurses graduated – skilled in the use of the pedal-powered dental drill; which was often used without anaesthetic!
Students who were – perhaps understandably – terrified of visiting the dentist while at school devised an ominous nickname for the service. Students whose names were called out for appointments were said to have visited the ‘Murder House’.
The School Dental Service existed until 2006, when it became the Community Oral Health Service. It now offers subsidised dental care for people aged 18 and under.
Disposable Syringes - 1956
In early 1956, New Zealand veterinarian Colin Murdoch of Christchurch was trying to develop a method of vaccination that eliminated risk of infection. While the ubiquitous glass syringes of the time were designed for multiple uses and sterilised between each use, infection still occurred from time to time.
At 27 years of age, Colin had the idea for single-use, disposable syringes made from a less expensive material than glass. It’s believed that the idea came to him while he was playing with a fountain pen!
He pitched the idea to the New Zealand Health Department, who ultimately dismissed his idea; claiming the invention was obscure and too futuristic. Not deterred by this setback, Murdoch filed a patent application.
Today, disposable plastic syringes are an indispensible feature of medical treatment, with nearly 16 billion used worldwide each year.
Polio Vaccine - 1956
In what would be a significant year for Australasian healthcare, June of 1956 saw the polio vaccine introduced into Australia.
Dr Percival Bazeley of the Commonwealth Serum Labratories (CSL) had been sent to work with renowned American virologist Jonas Salk in 1952, and in 1955 returned to Melbourne and began manufacturing the ‘Salk vaccine’. These were distributed across Australia in June of 1956, with 25 million doses produced by CSL under Dr Bazeley’s watch.
While many parents were enthusiastic about the vaccine, vaccination rates were not high enough, and the lack of herd immunity contributed to further polio outbreaks in 1961 and 1962.
In 1966, an oral vaccine developed by Polish-American medical researcher Albert Sabin was first used in Australia. In October 2000, the WHO declared the Western-Pacific region, which included Australia, to be polio-free.
Oral Contraceptive Pill - 1961
When oral contraceptive pill ‘Anovlar’ arrived in Australia in February of 1961, it ushered in a momentous change for the lives of women. While initially only available to married women, and burdened with a hefty luxury tax of 27.5%, the pill gave women the freedom to avoid unwanted pregnancies, and more carefully plan their journey into parenthood.
Offering women this kind of control over their reproductive future saw more women entering the workforce. More working women became the basis for ongoing social change, including legislation around equal pay and freedom from discrimination.
In 1972, during his first 10 days in office, then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam universally abolished luxury taxes on contraceptives and placed the pill on the PBS list, making it available to women for $1 per month.
Today, the pill remains one of the most popular and safest forms of birth control.
Medicare - 1975
The first iteration of Australia’s public healthcare system began on 1 July 1975, after the passing of legislation by a joint sitting of Parliament of 7 August, 1974 under Gough Whitlam’s government.
After the Whitlam government was dismissed, the incoming government, led by Malcolm Fraser, modified Medibank by establishing a levy of 2.5% on income to fund it – but this levy could be avoided by taking out private health insurance instead.
Many changes to Medibank followed, such as changes to agreements with states over how much money hospitals would receive, restrictions to benefits and bulk billing, and rebates for those who had private health insurance.
Most of these changes were controversial, and were revoked by the incoming Labor government of 1984, under Bob Hawke. Aside from a name change from Medibank to Medicare, the health system that operated from 1 February 1984 heavily resembled the initial implementation from 1975.
While Medicare remains in place today, it is a hotly debated political topic.
BreastScreen Australia - 1991
The BreastScreen Australia program was introduced in 1991 as a joint initiative of the Australian and state and territory governments. The purpose of the initiative was to reduce illness and death from breast cancer by detecting and, where possible, treating the disease early.
When the program was first introduced, it exclusively targeted women aged 50-69 years of age, believing this was the age group most likely to benefit. In 2013, it was extended to the 70-74 year old age group.
Research conducted in 2017 showed that over the program’s lifespan, breast cancer mortality has decreased at a population level by about 32%. This is due to both improvements in treatment, and early detection from screening.
From national and regional evaluations, it is estimated that early screenings prevent approximately 8 deaths for every 1,000 women screened in the age group of 50-74 years old.
As of 2023, Australian women aged 40 and over are eligible for free mammograms with BreastScreen Australia, with women aged 50-74 still the target demographic being actively targeted to participate.
The List Goes On!
While we’ve touched on some momentous and significant advancements in Australasian healthcare history in this article, there are dozens more events, programs, initiatives and people who have shaped, and made incredible contributions to our healthcare landscape.
If you think we’ve missed a key milestone in Australasian healthcare history, let us know! We’d love to learn more about it and share it with our readers.
For more information about World Health Day, visit the WHO website.
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