By Michael Kahn
LONDON, July 22 (Reuters) - Austerity measures attached to International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans may have contributed to a resurgence in tuberculosis in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, researchers said on Tuesday.
Governments may be reducing funding for health services such as hospitals and clinics to meet strict IMF economic targets, the British researchers said.
The study, published in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine, found that countries participating in IMF programmes had seen tuberculosis death rates increase by at least 17 percent between 1991 and 2000 — equivalent to more than 100,000 additional deaths. About one million new cases were recorded during the same period.
Nations that received money from other institutions with less restrictive economic conditions attached had seen a nearly 8 percent drop in tuberculosis death rates, David Stuckler and colleagues at the University of Cambridge said.
"IMF lending did not appear to be a response to worsened health outcomes; rather, it appeared to be a precipitant of such outcomes," they wrote.
But an IMF spokesman questioned whether the study took into account the instability following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and said it takes time for the disease to develop so the mortality rates could be linked to something previously.
"If the IMF had not stepped in to help the post-communist countries, the declines in health spending would likely have been more pronounced and disease generally more severe," IMF spokesman William Murray said in an email.
Tuberculosis is an infectious bacterial disease typically attacking the lungs that kills an estimated 1.6 million each year around the world.
The emergence and spread of drug-resistant germs makes treating it much harder and could make the disease even deadlier. Parts of the former Soviet Union are some of the hardest hit by drug-resistant TB.
The researchers used a statistical model to compare tuberculosis rates for 21 post-Communist countries along with the timing and length of IMF loans to other lending programmes.
Even when considering population changes, war, inflation and other factors that can lead to new cases, the researchers found that rising TB rates correlated closely to when IMF funding began.
The size of a loan and length of time a country participated were also important, according to the study that analysed IMF programmes in the region and TB rates between 1991 and 2000.
"We tested a lot of competing explanations and none could account for the patterns," Stuckler said in a telephone interview. "We are not saying the IMF loans are the only determinant but they help explain some of the patterns." (Reporting by Michael Kahn; Editing by Maggie Fox and Sami Aboudi)