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What Is Primary Prevention?

By Christina Whyte
Updated May 17, 2024
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Primary prevention is an attempt to prevent a negative health consequence, such as cancer or injury, before it ever occurs. It is often seen in public health campaigns and in health and safety related laws. This is an ideal type of health prevention if it can be implemented effectively.

The three different kinds of prevention in healthcare are primary, secondary, and tertiary. In primary prevention, the disease/condition is prevented entirely. Secondary prevention refers to testing and screening for disease in order to catch it early and treat it before it causes harm. Tertiary prevention is the least optimal kind of prevention in most cases, and is used when the disease or condition is already present and the goal is to prevent as many adverse consequences as possible.

Some worldwide humanitarian goals are a type of primary prevention, such as the provision of clean water, nutritious food, and adequate sanitation. These actions help to prevent a whole host of diseases and conditions. Other examples of this type of prevention have been made into laws, including requiring seat belts and airbags in automobiles to prevent injuries in car crashes. This type of prevention is often seen in public health, the legal system, the education system, and other national or international systems.

Many primary prevention campaigns are aimed at children in order to prevent negative health consequences as early as possible, including vaccinations, laws mandating child car seats, and mandatory physical activity in schools. Targeting teenagers through education is another common technique, including anti-drug and smoking campaigns as well as sex education that promotes condom use to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Adults and the elderly are also targeted by promoting items such as tests for cancer and maintaining a healthy weight and activity level.

Primary prevention is ideal because if it is effective, no treatment is required. This reduces the burden on the health care system as well as prevents human suffering by targeting the root cause of the health consequence. Secondary and tertiary prevention both involve some treatment action, and therefore do not always address the root cause.

It is sometimes difficult to get funding and other support for primary prevention programs because the impact of these programs is difficult to measure compared to the impact of secondary and tertiary programs. Long term studies may be needed to show the effect of primary prevention. For example, a study showing a decrease in car crash fatalities after a seat belt law was implemented would show the effect of the law.

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