Themes: Health

Health in the Americas – medicine, health practices, hygiene

Pre-Columbian medicine

Compared to the rest of the world, medical science in Pre-Columbian Central and South America was unusually advanced.  The Mayans for example knew how to make false teeth, and were skilled at suturing wounds with human hair.  The Incas knew how to stimulate the immune system, and practised complex surgical techniques. Medical education in some places included long periods of training, followed by a regulated period of general practice before doctors were considered fully qualified. Medicine was also part of religious culture, involving not only physical treatment but also treatment of the soul.  Conditions that were thought treatable included: anger, cowardice, regret, grief, fear, and sadness.



Health in the Americas deteriorated dramatically with the arrival of Europeans in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Immigrants from Eurasia and Africa brought diseases such as typhus, influenza, cholera, malaria, tuberculosis, and small pox. These became devastating epidemics, wiping out in some places at least 90% of the indigenous population. It was not until the 19th century, when vaccination became available, that native populations began to improve.


Hygiene and health insurance

In modern times, healthcare in Central and South America has become much more available and affordable.  In modern Mexico, roughly 80-90% of the population now have access to clean water and enjoy proper sanitation. There are no countries in Central and South America that offer a national health service, but health insurance is commonly available and increasingly promoted as a basic entitlement.