Teacher's Guide: Living Longer

"Miracle drugs" and widespread public health campaigns have conquered many infectious diseases in the twentieth century. Yet today, old and new diseases continue to cause misery and suffering, and present new challenges for scientists and others.

Unit Themes and Topics:
government and public health
human rights
medicine and infectious diseases
population growth
values and social change

Ali Maalin
(smallpox survivor, Somalia)

"I assumed that everybody who got [smallpox] died. I thought I was going to die."
photographic portrait of Ali Maalin

Note to Teachers:

This program contains graphic scenes and presents controversial issues such as birth control, abortion, and the spread of HIV/AIDS. We recommend that you preview the program before using it in the classroom.


Before Watching

1. What diseases do people today worry most about getting? What diseases do you think people worried most about getting fifty years ago?

2. As students watch the program, have them write down the diseases that have posed the greatest threat to people in different parts of the world and how the diseases were fought.

After Watching

1. What efforts did governments take to fight and prevent diseases? How have industrialized countries been able to defeat many diseases? What social and economic factors today are preventing the United States from eliminating some diseases, such as tuberculosis and AIDS?

2. Why did some people resist participating in the smallpox campaign? How were the World Health Organization's efforts effective and ineffective and why? Why do diseases that can be cured or prevented continue to pose a threat in some developing countries? What do you think it would take to eliminate treatable diseases, such as cholera, in developing countries?

3. What reasons did people give for having small or large families? How can population growth directly and indirectly contribute to the spread of disease? What, if anything, could prevent overpopulation from contributing to the spread of disease?


To help students understand the impact of longer life expectancies, have them examine demographic trends in industrialized and developing countries. Possible resources include Zero Population Growth, Washington, D.C.; the World Eagle, a social studies journal (1-800-854-8273); the Central Intelligence Agency Handbook; or the U.S. Government Documents Center in Pueblo, Colorado.

Ask each student to research population, life expectancy, birth rate, age distribution, median income, literacy rates, educational or employment status of women, and leading causes of death in one country over the last 50 years. Have students create a bar graph that shows how these indicators have changed over time. Discuss the patterns in developing countries and in industrialized countries, and how changes in life expectancy might be related to other kinds of social change.

Miracle Medicines

The following lesson focuses on a program segment about efforts in the United States and Western Europe to fight the spread of tuberculosis and polio. World War II doctors and former patients describe the battles against the diseases, how the diseases influenced soldiers' and children's lives, and how medicine ended the battle for some.

Program Segment
approximately 17 minutes

The beginning of the program

Dr. Jonas Salk receives recognition from President Johnson.


Before Watching

1. Have you ever taken antibiotics? If so, why did you take them? What might have happened if you hadn't had access to antibiotics?

2. As a class, brainstorm a list of infectious illnesses that exist today. Are these diseases considered dangerous? If so, why? What are some things people do to avoid these diseases?

3. As students watch the program segment, have them write down how people's lives were different before the development of penicillin and polio vaccines.

After Watching

1. Why were people afraid of diseases such as tuberculosis and polio? How did the fear of disease shape their lives?

2. How do you think World War II contributed to the spread of diseases? What factors and public efforts contributed to the fight against infectious diseases in Europe and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s?

3. To what extent is disease an individual or societal problem? How have laws been used to prevent, reduce the spread of, or treat diseases in the United States? Do you agree with those laws? What other ways could laws be used to prevent, reduce the spread of, or treat diseases?


Have students conduct an oral history to explore the relationship between medicine and social change. Have students ask the following questions in an interview of an older adult who can recall childhood before "miracle drugs" such as antibiotics or the polio vaccine: Did you worry about getting sick? How did adults try to protect you from communicable diseases? Did you know anyone who got childhood illnesses or infections that could now be prevented or cured? How were these illnesses treated? How do you see new vaccines or treatments making a difference in children's lives? With prior permission from the interviewees, have students read the interviews aloud or compile them in a notebook.

Have students research the history and use of vaccineswhat they are, how they were developed, initial reactions, controversies surrounding their use, etc. Ask students to use their findings to create an encyclopedia entry. Combine the entries to create a class "mini-book" on vaccines.

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