People's History of the NHS

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Contagion and the State

During the Second World War posters assumed an important position within the governmental machinery of the war effort. This relationship did not end with peacetime. Rather posters remained an important tool of communication, especially for promoting health and hygiene. Slogans such as 'coughs as sneezes spread diseases' may have first been coined during the war, but they remained important stalwarts of governmental hygiene messages into the 1960s. Posters educating the public about the dangers of contagion focused on handkerchief or tissue use, hand washing and food hygiene. These three emphases were the subjects for repeated, and in some cases annual, governmental health campaigns focused on promoting disease prevention. They finally fell out of governmental favour in the early 1970s when chronic disease campaigns became the main target of health education and issues around personal and food hygiene fell to the wayside. Instead, the state promotion of cleanliness has become reactive, forming parts of rapid response initiatives in the wake of epidemic events. This can be seen particularly in the swine flu pandemic of 2009-2010 and again in the current COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Yet even in times of health crises, the messages themselves have remained remarkably stable reflecting the continued importance placed by public health on straightforward personal interventions such as hand washing and trapping germs in tissues.

JH

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