DHEC as we know it now started out as the South Carolina State Board of Health. During a yellow fever epidemic that killed nearly 20,000 people in 1878, South Carolina lawmakers created the State Board of Health to “be the sole adviser of the State in all questions involving the protection of the public health within its limits.”
The State Board of Health continued to serve this role for South Carolinians until lawmakers combined it with the Pollution Control Authority in 1973 to form the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Over the years, South Carolinians have suffered and persevered through numerous epidemics and public health crises. Burial records from the South Carolina State Hospital available in the Local History Digital Collections show the devastating effects that pellagra, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases had on vulnerable populations in South Carolina. The State Board of Health and later DHEC have been essential in responding to these crises.
Poliomyelitis, also known as polio, is a disease caused by poliovirus. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, thousands of people were paralyzed because of polio, and many parents wouldn’t let their children outside to play as a way of keeping them safe from contracting polio.
In 1955, the first polio vaccine became available, and the State Board of Health coordinated vaccine distribution to local health departments and schools.
As a result of these vaccinations, cases of paralysis caused by polio declined sharply, and there have been no cases of polio originating in the United States since 1979.
This is just one of numerous epidemics and public health crises that the State Board of Health and DHEC have worked to alleviate for South Carolinians over the years. Others include meningitis, tuberculosis, venereal diseases, and HIV/AIDS.
DHEC supports both public health and environmental control in many ways that impact our daily lives. The agency not only responds to epidemics but also maintains vital records like birth certificates, conducts diagnostic testing, prevents harmful pollution in our air and groundwater, and provides licensing and certification for healthcare centers and services across the state. All of this is part of DHEC’s vision for “healthy people living in healthy communities.”