Austerity bad for health, say researchers

Monday 29 April 2013 21.31
Greece has seen its first malaria outbreak in decades after budget cuts to mosquito-spraying programmes
Greece has seen its first malaria outbreak in decades after budget cuts to mosquito-spraying programmes

Austerity is having a devastating effect on health in Europe and North America, driving suicide, depression and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care, researchers have said.

Detailing a decade of research, Oxford University's David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, from Stanford University, said their findings show austerity is seriously bad for health.

In a book to be published this week, the researchers say that over 10,000 suicides and up to one million cases of depression have been diagnosed during what they call the "Great Recession" and its accompanying austerity across Europe and North America.

In Greece, moves such as cutting HIV prevention budgets have coincided with rates of the AIDS-causing virus rising by over 200% since 2011.

This is driven in part by increasing drug abuse in the context of a 50% youth unemployment rate.

Greece also experienced its first malaria outbreak in decades following budget cuts to mosquito-spraying programmes.

More than five million Americans have lost access to healthcare during the latest recession, they argue, while in Britain, 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness by the government's austerity budget.

"Our politicians need to take into account the serious - and in some cases profound - health consequences of economic choices," said Dr Stuckler, a co-author of "The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills".

"The harms we have found include HIV and malaria outbreaks, shortages of essential medicines, lost healthcare access, and an avoidable epidemic of alcohol abuse, depression and suicide," he said. "Austerity is having a devastating effect."

Previous studies by Dr Stuckler published in journals such as The Lancet and the British Medical Journal have linked rising suicide rates in some parts of Europe to austerity measures, and found HIV epidemics to be spreading amid cutbacks in services to vulnerable people.

But Dr Stuckler and Dr Basu said negative public health effects are not inevitable, even during the worst economic disasters.

Using data from the Great Depression of the 1930s, to post-communist Russia and from some examples of the current economic downturn, they say financial crises can be prevented from becoming epidemics if governments respond effectively.

As an example, they say, Sweden's active labour market programmes helped the numbers of suicides to fall there during its recession, despite a big rise in unemployment.

Neighbouring countries with no such programmes saw large increases in suicides.

During the depression in the US, each extra $100 of relief spending from the American New Deal led to about 20 fewer deaths per 1,000 births, four fewer suicides per 100,000 people and 18 fewer pneumonia deaths per 100,000 people.

"Ultimately what we show is that worsening health is not an inevitable consequence of economic recessions. It's a political choice," Dr Basu said in the statement.