Coughs, sneezes and mosquitoes: Are we serious about improving the public’s health?

The first thing I noticed when I got off the train in West Kowloon Station late at night was a series of posters about preventing mosquitoes from breeding.

As I walked through the immigration processes, these were followed up with further information on dengue, malaria and zika virus.

Over the days that followed, part of my sightseeing involved spotting the various public health posters around the Metro system.

Oh yes, I’m great to go travelling with – other people look for Hard Rock Cafes or museums, I look for posters about diseases.

Public Health messages (or Health Education) dominated the public spaces – I have never seen so many… except in museums about Public Health.

The majority of the Hong Kong posters were focused on health protection issues – insect-borne infections and the three key diseases cause serious illness.

However, there were also health promotion messages too, with a substantial number focusing on mental health and wellbeing.

The Hong Kong equivalent to the Five Ways to Wellbeing.

The reason I’m writing about this now, while I’m in Hanoi, is that I haven’t seen anything like this, yet, in Vietnam. I haven’t seen posters of any description, nevermind specific health awareness ones.

It wasn’t only in Hong Kong that I noticed this type of Public Health messaging.

Many of China’s parks had signs outlining the importance of physical activity.

Russia (particularly during the Soviet era), I would argue, had some of its Public Health messages buried in its artworks showing the ideal Russians – enjoying physical activity, for example – as well as more current action such as holding large scale events like Love Your Health in Yekaterinburg.

Public Health messaging (Health Education) has a long history in the UK (and in fact, all over the world) and it has worked it way into our language and daily sayings.

It was only when I was training to be a Consultant in Public Health that I realised the parental mantra to cover my nose when I sneezed – “coughs and sneezes spread diseases” – came from a 1947 cinema advert. And, as they hadn’t been born when this message was broadcast, it had clearly had an impact on their parents.

Public Health England runs several campaigns a year – some of them national and some of them regional. Adverts feature on TV, radio and often on the back of buses.

There are some excellent examples of Public Health messaging and campaigning, to raise awareness and encourage people to take responsibility for their health, all over the world.

What strikes me is the need to join up the messaging with action to reinforce the information and support people.

I’ve talked about the public parks and green spaces in Russia and China that are filled with facilities to encourage exercise and physical activity. This is obviously good.

I’ve also highlighted the green ways in Beijing to address air quality issues but I also talked about how prevalent the fast food industry is in China and the fact that their obesity policy does not include food. It’s an important gap.

Public Health messaging is vitally important.

People should understand how to look after their health, but it needs to be supplemented with a Health In All Policies approach.

If the world’s governments are serious about their population’s health and wellbeing, all of their policies should address this. Example, if you don’t want your population to be obese, don’t just tell them to exercise… look at the food that is available. If you want to reduce the number of people who die of alcohol related disease, review the cost of alcohol.

Ethically, I believe it is wrong to tell people how to be healthy without implementing the means to help them to be so. Yes, this probably does include taxes on certain products. It may include bans or restrictions. It might actually require legalising currently illegal aspects of life.

It depends on what the issue is, where in the world you are and what the evidence shows.

Without a Health In All Policies approach, that takes action across all sectors, warnings about health just appears mealy-mouthed and lacking sincerity and commitment.

*Featured Photo: Guilin’s four Number One Scholars… considering the challenge of Health In All Policies.

Categories: Air Pollution, China, Food, Hong Kong, Mental Health, Public Health, Russia, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. In some places around the world culture and society and what’s desirable work against what is common sense in terms of health.

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