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WHO Says China Faces Serious Challenges in Improving Life Expectancy

The World Health Organization's top official in China says unhealthy lifestyles and a deteriorating health care system are cutting into the Chinese people's life expectancy. The official was responding to a Chinese academic report last week that said the population would be living an average of 13 years longer by 2050. Daniel Schearf reports from Beijing.

A report by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences last week predicted that by the middle of this century, the Chinese would be living to an average age of 85, up from the current 72.

But the World Health Organization's representative in China, Dr. Henk Bekedam, says the Chinese will not reach that goal unless they cut down on smoking, improve their diet, and exercise more.

China has 350 million smokers, who Bekedam says are likely to die five to 10 years earlier than if they didn't smoke. He says a modern lifestyle of fast food and little exercise has led to 150 million Chinese suffering from chronic high blood pressure, 23 percent of the population being overweight, and seven percent obese. China also has some of the most polluted cities and waterways in the world.

Bekedam says that despite the country's booming economy, average life expectancy has increased by only three years over the last three decades. He says only the well-off have access to quality health care, and the government must provide better care for the poor.

"In the current situation in China, where China has also started relying on the market in the health sector, if people have money they have access," he said. "If they don't have money, they don't have access."

During the era of China's command economy, the government heavily subsidized the healthcare system, providing basic services and preventative care for little or no fees.

But the government withdrew most of those subsidies as the country moved toward a market economy, and hospitals and clinics now have to rely on the fees they charged their patients. This has often led to overcharging and unnecessary procedures.

Some poor rural areas have little or no health care available at all. When it is available, the cost is often so high that Bekedam says half the Chinese people refuse to seek medical treatment when they are sick.

In addition, medicines are poorly controlled. Fake and low-quality drugs kill and harm many Chinese every year.

Bekedam says China should adopt international standards for its medicines, and encourage more preventative health care.

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