Health and Science

EU in 'Denial' That Sick Economy Costs Lives, Health Experts Say


Europe's financial crisis iscosting lives, with suicides and infectious diseases on therise, yet politicians are not addressing the problem, healthexperts said on Wednesday.

Deep budget cuts and growing unemployment are tipping morepeople into depression, and falling incomes mean fewer peoplecan see their doctors or afford to buy medicines.

The result has been a reversal since 2007 of a long-termdecline in suicide rates, coupled with worrying outbreaks ofdiseases including HIV - and even malaria - in Greece, accordingto an major analysis of European health in The Lancet journal.

Countering these threats requires strong social protectionschemes, researchers argue. But the austerity measures imposedafter a string of crises in southern Europe - most recently inCyprus - has shredded such safety nets.

"There is a clear problem of denial of the health effects ofthe crisis, even though they are very apparent," said leadresearcher Martin McKee of the European Observatory on HealthSystems and Policies, a group backed by the World HealthOrganisation.

"The European Commission has a treaty obligation to look atthe health effect of all of its policies but has not producedany impact assessment on the health effects of the austeritymeasures imposed by the troika."

The so-called troika of the European Commission, EuropeanCentral Bank and International Monetary Fund is the group oflenders responsible for a series of economic bail-outs.

McKee said the failure of European governments and theEuropean Commission to face up to the health consequences oftheir policies was reminiscent of the "obfuscation" of thetobacco industry over curbs on smoking.

The case of Iceland, however, suggests there is analternative.

Despite a devastating financial crisis, Iceland rejectedausterity, following a referendum, and instead continued toinvest in its social welfare system. As a result, theresearchers found there had been no discernible effects onhealth since the crisis.

Iceland's economy has now returned to growth, but therecovery is patchy and inflation has remained stubbornly high.

By contrast, McKee and colleagues reported that healthcaresystems were now under strain in many European countries,including Spain, Portugal and Greece, with a series of negativeconsequences.

In particular, there is a growing trend for patients to seekcare at a later stage, even though this will mean worse outcomesfor individuals and higher costs for the healthcare system inthe long term.

In Greece, meanwhile, hospitals are struggling to maintainbasic standards, resulting in a rise in antibiotic resistantinfections, and patients have suffered shortages of a number ofmedicines, including epilepsy treatments.