Influence of Laws & Policies on Health & Disease Prevention

Instructor: Veronika Polozkova

Masters in International Health. Lesson development experience on different levels from basic alimentary school to academic master level. Languages: English, Dutch, Russian

Laws and policies play a big role in organization of public health. But what are they exactly, how are they formulated, and what makes them so important?

Health Policies and Laws

Imagine if retailers could offer you food without having to adhere to any standards? Or what if health clinics had no rule for sanitation? Would you feel secure eating anywhere or going to those clinics? Scary! If health regulations didn't exist, the modern world would be a very dangerous place.

Health policies and laws are important political documents that aim to set regulations for the health sector and related industries. In general, they are outlines to improve the population's health and safety. Both types of documents are important for the health system to function well. There is a difference between them though:

  • Health policies are decisions, plans, and actions that serve as health care goals within a society.
  • Health laws are legally bound, enforced regulations that mandate standards and come with consequences if not implemented.

Normally health policies outline goals for a period of 4-10 years, but governments are free to choose their own terms. Health laws, on the other hand, have a specific starting date with an open end and can be overruled with a new law.

Vaccines are often required for certain jobs, schools, or entry into other countries

Both of these documents should contain health promotion, disease prevention, treatment norms and action plans. They should also outline stakeholders that are involved in a regulation and set a monitoring mechanism.

The World Health Organization (WHO) constantly works on the development of recommendations and suggests priorities based on research developments. Their policy recommendations are often adopted by the member states of the United Nations. When formulating national health regulations, governments are advised to take these into account, but are free to create their own documents, relevant for their countries.


It is difficult to trace when the first health regulation was adopted. In the ancient ages, a healer of a community fulfilled the role of health authority and passed on their knowledge. Much later, it was found that hygienic and sanitary regulations could help to prevent epidemics (without any magic).

It was discovered, for instance, that regular Vitamin C intake could prevent 'scurvy', a stomach disease where sailors in the 16th through 18th centuries suffered anemia and other effects due to lack of fruit during long sea trips. A storage of lime juice on board of all ships was then 'prescribed' by the Merchant Shipping Act of 1867 to ensure the health of sailors.

Of course, as new evidence and medicines advanced, regulations increased.

An important health regulation was adopted by all governments around the world in 1948. It was 'The Right to Health' stated in Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which mandated that ''every human has a right to the highest attainable standard of health.''

Another important health regulation is the Declaration of Alma-Ata, which was adopted globally in 1978. The declaration is called 'Health for All', which essentially says that primary health care has to be brought within the reach of everyone in any given country.

Governments also signed to set regulations that will facilitate these Declarations in practice. There are now thousands of documents around the world, which all aim to realize the 'Right to Health' and 'Health for All'.

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