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Austerity Seriously Affecting Health in Europe, North America

Medical staff take part in a protest rally against austerity measures in Athens, Greece, April 17, 2013.
Medical staff take part in a protest rally against austerity measures in Athens, Greece, April 17, 2013.
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Michael Scaturro
— Austerity is having a serious effect on health in both Europe and North America - that's according to a team of researchers at U.S. and European universities. Rates of suicide, depression and infectious diseases are up, and even malaria, eradicated from most Western countries decades ago, has staged a comeback in Greece.  

Experts from leading U.S. and European universities compiled data for the World Health Organization's annual report on "health policy responses to the financial crises in Europe and the U.S." The report won't be released until September, but the researchers, alarmed at how much budget cuts have affected Greece, have begun speaking out.

"Greece is an example of perhaps the worst case of austerity leading to public health disasters," said David Stuckler of Oxford University, one of the study's authors. He said International Monetary Fund and European Union austerity measures imposed on the Greeks are having a devastating impact on their health.

"After mosquito spraying programs were cut, we've seen a return of malaria, which the country has kept under control for the past four decades.  New HIV infections have jumped more than 200 percent," he said.

Stuckler said increasing intravenous drug use among the young, and a lack of funds for clean needle exchange programs, are responsible for the spike in new HIV infections.

While southern Europe is dealing with shortages of medicine and healthcare services, northern European countries like Germany say they have more health care than they need.

"We are discussing whether we have too many beds, too many hospitals, too many procedures," said Klaus-Dirk Henke of Berlin's Technical University, one of the project's researchers. He said that countries in northern Europe, like France, Luxembourg, and Belgium, have actually seen their health care systems improve during the economic crisis, due to targeted increases in health care spending. He's calling on EU politicians to address the widening health care gap between the north and south of Europe.

"Northern countries in the European Union should help more and subsidize the southern countries, and this is what we are doing, at least in regard to the euro crisis," said Henke. "The credits that go now to the south - this is money to support them and help them to get a fair economic situation again. The unemployment rate in Spain is about 50 percent for young people - this is incredible, we have to do something about it."

But it's not just Europeans who are experiencing more negative health care outcomes in this crisis. The U.S. is, too.

David Stuckler said, "I should point out that on the sequester: cuts to the women and children's health program, which provides food to pregnant women, and has been shown to prevent infant mortality - this is one of the programs facing significant cuts. Another is the Centers for Disease Control, which was a great protector during meningitis outbreaks, and outbreaks of West Nile Virus, which has been seen in California, and most recently in Dallas, Texas."

Stuckler said over five million Americans lost their health insurance during the "Great Recession," adding to an already large pool of uninsured.  

He says Iceland's reaction to its own massive bank collapses and economic troubles could serve as an example. That country's politicians put austerity to a vote.

"Ninety-three percent of the Icelandic people voted against steep budget cuts to finance bank bailouts," Stuckler said. "The economy recovered, and by investing to increase health spending in a time of crisis, as well as providing support to the unemployed and to people who lost homes, we in fact saw health improve."

Stuckler and his co-authors are calling for stimulus spending to be directed towards health care programs. They say money used this way is rapidly absorbed by overstretched systems and quickly provides jobs and valuable services.

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