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Austerity is hurting our health, say researchers

People hold umbrellas as they march with a banner during a protest against government austerity measures in Barcelona April 28, 2013. REUTER
People hold umbrellas as they march with a banner during a protest against government austerity measures in Barcelona April 28, 2013. REUTER

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - Austerity is having a devastating effect on health in Europe and North America, driving suicide, depression and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care, researchers said on Monday.

Detailing a decade of research, Oxford University political economist David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, an assistant professor of medicine and an epidemiologist at Stanford University, said their findings show austerity is seriously bad for health.

In a book to be published this week, the researchers say more than 10,000 suicides and up to a million cases of depression have been diagnosed during what they call the "Great Recession" and its accompanying austerity across Europe and North America.

In Greece, moves like cutting HIV prevention budgets have coincided with rates of the AIDS-causing virus rising by more than 200 percent since 2011 - driven in part by increasing drug abuse in the context of a 50 percent youth unemployment rate.

Greece also experienced its first malaria outbreak in decades following budget cuts to mosquito-spraying programs.

And more than five million Americans have lost access to healthcare during the latest recession, they argue, while in Britain, some 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness by the government's austerity budget.

"Our politicians need to take into account the serious - and in some cases profound - health consequences of economic choices," said David Stuckler, a senior researcher at Oxford University and co-author The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills

"The harms we have found include HIV and malaria outbreaks, shortages of essential medicines, lost healthcare access, and an avoidable epidemic of alcohol abuse, depression and suicide," he said in a statement. "Austerity is having a devastating effect."

Previous studies by Stuckler published in journals such as The Lancet and the British Medical Journal have linked rising suicide rates in some parts of Europe to biting austerity measures, and found HIV epidemics to be spreading amid cutbacks in services to vulnerable people.

But Stuckler and Basu said negative public health effects are not inevitable, even during the worst economic disasters.

Using data from the Great Depression of the 1930s, to post-communist Russia and from some examples of the current economic downturn, they say financial crises can be prevented from becoming epidemics - if governments respond effectively.

As an example, they say, Sweden's active labor market programs helped the numbers of suicides to fall there during its recession, a big rise in unemployment. Neighboring countries with no such programs saw large increases in suicides.

And during the 1930s depression in the United States, each extra $100 of relief spending from the American New Deal led to about 20 fewer deaths per 1,000 births, four fewer suicides per 100,000 people and 18 fewer pneumonia deaths per 100,000 people.

"Ultimately what we show is that worsening health is not an inevitable consequence of economic recessions. It's a political choice," Basu said in the statement.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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