Even the wealthy can be impacted by the negative health effects of austerity

At first it was a mystery. How was it that during an excessively dry and hot 2007 summer that cases of West Nile disease had jumped in Bakersfield California by 276 per cent?

Dry weather is not normally associated with an abundance of mosquitos, which are transmitters of the disease from birds to humans.

Laboratories confirmed 140 cases in Bakersfield, a city of more than 800,000 in Southern California.

According to researchers at the University of California, aerial photography of the city showed something unusual – a high number of algae blooms in private swimming pools, hot tubs and ornamental ponds. One photograph showed 17 per cent of visible pools and hot tubs appearing green and likely producing mosquitos.

It turns out that Bakersfield was also at the epicenter of mortgage foreclosures, the downturn in the housing market leading to a 300 per cent rise in mortgage delinquencies.

Dr. William K. Reisen, a research entomologist with the Center for Vectorborne Diseases, had his team knock on the doors of these homes and found no one living there. The pools, hot tubs and water features were essentially abandoned and had become breeding grounds for the mosquitos.

The story, featured in a new book, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, reminds us that we are ultimately all in this together.

While the super wealthy may feel they are winning the class war as the inequality gap widens, the face of austerity is an evidence-based decline in population health for which they cannot be entirely excluded from risk. A mosquito doesn’t care how wealthy you are.

Southern Greece is experiencing another form of mosquito-borne illness – malaria. In 2011 Greece experienced the disease for the first time in 40 years. Both global warming and the economic crisis had a role in the return of the disease, local budgets for mosquito spraying being among the casualties of Greece’s extreme public service austerity.

London England is one of the great global financial centers. Yet one of its biggest health problems lately is the spread of tuberculosis, an infectious disease usually associated with developing nations, not the epicenter of international wealth and power. About 40 per cent of Britain’s TB cases are in the capital and even more worrisome, these cases are increasingly strains that are drug resistant.

According to Wikipedia, people with prolonged, frequent, or close contact with people with TB are at particularly high risk of becoming infected, with an estimated 22 per cent infection rate. A person with active but untreated tuberculosis may infect 10–15 (or more) other people per year.

The spread of the disease in the UK is directly linked to cuts to the social safety net that left many homeless, include Prime Minister David Cameron’s halt to new social housing.

Last summer strains of TB were also found in 18 counties in Florida.

The Palm Beach Post reports Florida experienced the US’s “most extensive, fastest-growing TB outbreak.” The newspaper states a visiting official from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said is it was among the worst his group had seen in 20 years.

The spread of TB is associated with homelessness. According to authors Stuckler and Basu, “the homeless are at high risk of contracting infectious diseases like TB, which can then spread to the rest of the population.”

It’s not just Florida and London. A Toronto study published in 2011 by St. Michael’s Hospital identified 91 homeless persons with active TB between 1998-2007. The report notes they typically had highly contagious, advanced disease, and 19 per cent died within 12 months of diagnosis.

Stuckler and Basu conclude their book with three bromides for our times. The first is to do no harm, urging policy makers to weigh the full consequences of policy decisions. “Would you prefer a 0.3 per cent lower short-term budget deficit or 2,000 more dead Americans? If during the Great Recession, our policymakers and politicians had done their austerity math in this brutally honest way, they would have likely chosen different priorities,” they write.

The authors also recommend a focus on job creation and labour adjustment programs – particularly as they impact on mental health and the suicide rate. The third recommendation is to invest in public health, noting that in the Bakersfield’s situation, the impact of the first outbreak was mitigated by the California Encephalitis Project. Budget cuts meant the second outbreak left Bakersfield without assistance.

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One response to “Even the wealthy can be impacted by the negative health effects of austerity

  1. Pingback: Media and Policy News: 31 May 2013

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