* Financial crisis takes heavy toll on health, experts say
* Austerity drive blamed for shredding social safety nets
* Iceland shows alternative way as health standards hold up
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, March 27 Europe's financial crisis is
costing lives, with suicides and infectious diseases on the
rise, yet politicians are not addressing the problem, health
experts said on Wednesday.
Deep budget cuts and growing unemployment are tipping more
people into depression, and falling incomes mean fewer people
can see their doctors or afford to buy medicines.
The result has been a reversal since 2007 of a long-term
decline in suicide rates, coupled with worrying outbreaks of
diseases including HIV - and even malaria - in Greece, according
to an major analysis of European health in The Lancet journal.
Countering these threats requires strong social protection
schemes, researchers argue. But the austerity measures imposed
after a string of crises in southern Europe - most recently in
Cyprus - has shredded such safety nets.
"There is a clear problem of denial of the health effects of
the crisis, even though they are very apparent," said lead
researcher Martin McKee of the European Observatory on Health
Systems and Policies, a group backed by the World Health
"The European Commission has a treaty obligation to look at
the health effect of all of its policies but has not produced
any impact assessment on the health effects of the austerity
measures imposed by the troika."
The so-called troika of the European Commission, European
Central Bank and International Monetary Fund is the group of
lenders responsible for a series of economic bail-outs.
McKee said the failure of European governments and the
European Commission to face up to the health consequences of
their policies was reminiscent of the "obfuscation" of the
tobacco industry over curbs on smoking.
The case of Iceland, however, suggests there is an
Despite a devastating financial crisis, Iceland rejected
austerity, following a referendum, and instead continued to
invest in its social welfare system. As a result, the
researchers found there had been no discernible effects on
health since the crisis.
Iceland's economy has now returned to growth, but the
recovery is patchy and inflation has remained stubbornly high.
By contrast, McKee and colleagues reported that healthcare
systems were now under strain in many European countries,
including Spain, Portugal and Greece, with a series of negative
In particular, there is a growing trend for patients to seek
care at a later stage, even though this will mean worse outcomes
for individuals and higher costs for the healthcare system in
the long term.
In Greece, meanwhile, hospitals are struggling to maintain
basic standards, resulting in a rise in antibiotic resistant
infections, and patients have suffered shortages of a number of
medicines, including epilepsy treatments.
(Editing by Jon Hemming)