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Greece's Economic Recession Has Harmful Effect on Health

Update Date: Apr 20, 2013 06:41 AM EDT

Economic austerity measures in Greece have had harmful public health impacts, study finds.

Researchers at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and the University of New Mexico in the United States studied current data on the country's economic and social conditions, utilizations of health services, as well as health outcomes.

The data, showing the sharp deterioration of health services and outcomes, was cited in the American Journal of Public Health on Thursday.

The research showed key public health indicators declined with the Greek recession and austerity policies that reduced public services.

Suicide and homicide mortality rates among men increased between 2007 and 2009 by 22.7 percent and 27.6 percent. Mental disorders, substance abuse, and infectious diseases also displayed worsening trends.

Despite deteriorating health conditions, cutbacks occurred in government financing of public services, as the Ministry of Health's total expenditures fell by 23.7 percent between 2009 and 2011.

Patients also decreased their use of private medical facilities due to unemployment and loss of personal income. As a result, utilization of the already-stressed public inpatient and primary care services rose by 6.2 percent and 21.9 percent, over a two-year period.

"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 Dr. Elias Kondilis, lead author of the study and a researcher at Aristotle University.

The Greek economy has shrunk 20 percent in the past five years and has the highest unemployment rate in Europe at more than 27 percent. Of 10 job seekers, six say they have not worked in more than a year, according to the New York Times. These statistics are contributing to children arriving at school hungry or underfed, even malnourished, according to private groups and the government itself.

An estimated 10 percent of Greek elementary and middle school students suffered from "food insecurity" last year, meaning they faced hunger or the risk of it, said Dr. Athena Linos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School who also heads a food assistance program at Prolepsis, a nongovernmental public health group.

"When it comes to food insecurity, Greece has now fallen to the level of some African countries," she said.

Based on their findings, the researchers criticize austerity policies that are likely to cause deteriorating health conditions in other European countries and in the United States.

"The policies of cutbacks currently proposed in the United States for Medicare and Social Security will lead to similar devastating effects on health services and outcomes. Instead of austerity policies, we need increased public sector spending to stimulate our failing economy and to protect the health of our people," said U.S. based researcher Dr. Howard Waitzkin, a distinguished professor emeritus of sociology and medicine at the University of New Mexico.

In contrast to the Greek experience, the authors point to several Latin American countries that have resisted demands to reduce public investments in health services, which that authors argue have led to improved economic and health indicators. 

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