Cost burden of chronic illness in Asia growing

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Chronic illnesses like heart disease, cancer and depression affect Asians as much as those in Western countries and governments must draft plans to cope with long-term costs, health experts said on Monday.

Speaking before a two-day conference on healthcare in Asia, they blamed the illnesses on aging populations, mass movement to cities in search of work, stress, and unhealthy diet.

“In the city, people walk less, they park away their bicycles and have different foods,” Henk Bekedam of the World Health Organization (WHO) told Reuters.

Neuropsychiatric conditions like depression, cancer and heart disease are among the leading illnesses that result in disability and compromise the quality of life, according to the WHO.

“Asia is facing a double burden,” said Bruce Neal of the University of Sydney.

“While Asians are still suffering the maternal, child health, infectious disease-type problems they are also living longer as they get enough food to eat and are suffering similar illnesses to those in the West, such as cardiovascular diseases and depression.”

Some Asian families can lose their entire savings to years of treatment after a stroke, heart attack or a botched vaccination.

Tang Jingling, a lawyer, has been helping the family of Liang Jiayi from southern China, obliged to borrow the equivalent of close to $30,000 after she woke up paralyzed at age three after being vaccinated against Japanese encephalitis B.

“If something like this happens, the entire family can be bankrupted and destroyed,” he said.

A number of countries, including Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and China, have introduced healthcare insurance. But some schemes are basic and regarded by their citizens as insufficient to cover the cost of drugs and treatment for chronic illnesses.

Hong Kong, which has a robust but hard-to-sustain public healthcare system, is putting together a universal insurance scheme for its over 7 million residents.

“Of course there is always the criticism that we can’t afford the most expensive anti-cancer drugs that came out last week,” Hong Kong Health Secretary York Chow told Reuters last week.

“It is the big challenge for government and the healthcare provider to find the most appropriate and most cost effective care for a community for all types of diseases.”

Phua Kai Hong of the National University of Singapore calls for a more realistic approach to supplement insurance with savings and a strong primary prevention program.

“Because of aging we should move more toward savings based schemes and use insurance for catastrophic events,” Phua said.