There’s new evidence that austerity measures being imposed by the government on the orders of international lenders to write down the country’s crushing debt is adding to the toll of suicides, murder and other health problems in Greece.
A study conducted by a team of Greek clinicians and American researchers has found when Greece’s economy began to collapse three years ago that murders and disease rates soared, suggesting the the effect of pay cuts, tax hikes and slashed pensions is worse than believed.
Suicide and murder rates climbed from 2007 to 2009, particularly among men, and unusual outbreaks of malaria, West Nile virus and HIV took clinicians by surprise, said the findings in the American Journal of Public Health.
The decline in health came as Greece’s once robust economy collapsed into recession following the global economic crisis of 2007, with unemployment rising from 7.2 percent in 2008 to 22.6 percent in early 2012, and as austerity began in 2010 and continues today with more to come to satisfy the Troika of the European Union-International Monetary Fund-European Central Bank (EU-IMF-ECB) that is putting up $325 billion in two bailouts to rescue the country’s economy.
Among the big cuts made by the government was at the Ministry of Health, although some sectors remain protected, such as Parliament workers who were exempted from more austerity after threatening to stop work if their pay was cut. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras gave in to them. Meanwhile, health spending fell 24 percent from 2009-2011 and is taking more hits.
For patients, the cuts meant many services that were once free now cost money out of pocket. There were salary freezes and layoffs in the health sector, and many preventive programs were halted. That led to the joint Greek-American study.
“We were expecting that these austerity policies would negatively affect health services and health outcomes, but the results were much worse than we imagined,” said lead author Elias Kondilis, a researcher at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki.
Among the general population of some 11 million people, suicide rates rose 16 percent and murders climbed nearly 26 percent from 2007 to 2009, said the findings, which draw on Greek government data. Meanwhile, deaths from infectious disease increased 13 percent in those two years.
Among men under 65 who were more likely to face the perils of unemployment, the numbers were higher – a 23 percent higher suicide rate, a 25 percent rise in murder rate and a 27.6 percent rise in deaths from infectious diseases. Normally, preventive measures in developed nations lsuch as Greece are successful at keeping diseases such as malaria and HIV to a relatively low incidence, co-author Howard Waitzkin of the University of New Mexico told Agence-France-Presse (AFP).
But when programs like needle-exchanges for drug users and condoms for at-risk groups were slashed, the disease rates ballooned.
Researchers said they were surprised to see three infectious disease outbreaks in a span of 18 months from July 2010 to December 2011, he said. They included a spate of West Nile virus that infected 197 and killed 35 people, and an outbreak of malaria in southern Greece.
Also, there was a 57 percent spike in newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection, from 607 new HIV cases in 2010 to 954 in 2011. “These aren’t small percentage changes,” said Waitzkin, distinguished professor emeritus of sociology and medicine. The study said Greece initially attributed the outbreaks to environmental risk factors but the fact that public health measures had to be deployed after the fact implies that “the risks of transmission had not been addressed through prevention.”
Waitzkin said similar problems were seen in Argentina a decade ago, and the same issues could loom on the US horizon as the American government implements across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. “The concerns are much broader than simply Greece and these kinds of policies in our view are very dangerous for public health,” he said.
According to Angela Mattie, an expert in healthcare management at the Quinnipiac University School of Business in Hamden, Conn., good health is often linked to strong finances. “We know in the United States, for example, that employment status is tied to insurance coverage, which is tied to medical care, and early identification and treatment of disease,” said Mattie, who was not involved in the study. “People in better income brackets are at an advantage,” she said.