17 October 2012

Martin McKee: EU Citizen’s health threatened by austerity

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Europe’s austerity policies are harming the health of their populations, according to Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Martin McKee recently expressed his views at the 2012 European Health Forum in Bad Gastein, Austria.

Can we measure the impact of austerity on people’s health?
The human cost of austerity has been largely invisible because of lack of data. Get out your smartphones or blackberries and you can look at the latest crisis on the New York Stock Exchange.  But if you want to get mortality data from some countries in the EU, the most recent data is from 2008. That is an indictment of our system, of our priorities.

Are there obvious signs that austerity is harming the health of EU citizens?
In Greece, for example, the number of suicides increased 40% in the first half of 2011, compared to the same period in 2010.  I have carried out studies in the UK and Spain, which have consistently shown a link between suicides and job losses. I will publish the findings from Spain later this year. Previous studies revealed that a 1% jump in unemployment sees an increase of 0.79% in suicides. When unemployment rises by more than 3%, the suicide rate spikes up by 4.45%.
What we are seeing is a relationship between suicide and job losses. And that is consistent with what you see historically with events such as the great depression.
But there will also be other long terms effects from chronic illnesses which will take longer to play out.  But such damage will not be easy to spot, unlike rises and falls in the financial markets.

Who are the people worse affected?
There are some worrying developments. Spain, for example, used a royal decree to change entitlement to health care from residence to employment.  Thus young people who have never been employed – as is the case with almost half of all youth – and undocumented migrants risk being excluded from health care.
Some measures to reign in health spending are justified, but others cut essential services.  It is clear that people with chronic illnesses, such as hypertension, diabetes or cancer are being particularly affected.

Are the authorities aware of the harm done on health?
If you read through the documents from the European Commission, the Central Bank or the International Monetary Fund, you will have great difficulty finding anything that addresses the health consequences of the crisis.
We have waited for politicians and economists to get it right and they have failed to do so. People need to realise that austerity is not working and is harming European citizens.  With colleagues, I contributed a recent opinion piece to the medical publication Clinical Medicine – “Austerity: a failed experiment on the people of Europe” – to focus discussions at the European health conference in October 2012.

Should doctors get more involved in politics or even enter politics?
We need to draw these problems to the attention of politician and the public in the hope something will be done.  We have a right and duty to speak out on these bigger questions.   We must engage with the media, but I’ve mixed views about doctors becoming politicians.  A significant number of dictators have been doctors.

 

Photo Credit EHFG Nadine Bargad

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