How Austerity Kills

Over a year ago I saved an article that caught my eye – Businessweek, of all sources, reporting on a study connecting austerity and a spike in HIV in Greece:

HIV infections among drug users in Greece jumped more than 20-fold in fewer than two years, fueled by a lack of needle exchange and methadone programs, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The ECDC, the European Union agency that monitors infectious disease, reported 314 cases of the AIDS-causing virus among injecting drug users in the first eight months of this year. That compares with 208 for all of 2011 and no more than 15 cases a year from 2001 to 2010, the ECDC said in today’s report.

While the extent to which Greece’s economic crisis has contributed to the outbreak is unclear, austerity measures and high unemployment may fuel new infections in Athens and beyond the capital unless programs to provide methadone, clean needles and condoms are expanded, the Stockholm-based ECDC said.

“The current economic turmoil will continue to have adverse effects on HIV prevention not only in Greece, but also in other parts of Europe,” the ECDC said. “The cost of prevention to avert HIV infections will be less than the provision of treatment to those who become infected.” HIV Soars Among Greece’s Drug Users Amid Austerity – Businessweek.

This story contrasts with the relative lack of coverage in the U.S. of social service cuts. (I wonder if the CDC here would draw such a connection, between funding and the spread of disease. The report titles on their website are all very dry.)

Just this year, a study was published suggesting that people with HIV in London made different treatment choices as a result of economic austerity (their word).

And now there is a book out – “The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills” by economist David Stuckler and physician Sanjay Basu (the authors were recently interviewed by Amy Goodman, which you can read here.) The authors wrote an op-ed in the New York Times last spring about “How Austerity Kills:”

If suicides were an unavoidable consequence of economic downturns, this would just be another story about the human toll of the Great Recession. But it isn’t so. Countries that slashed health and social protection budgets, like Greece, Italy and Spain, have seen starkly worse health outcomes than nations like Germany, Iceland and Sweden, which maintained their social safety nets and opted for stimulus over austerity. (Germany preaches the virtues of austerity — for others.)

As scholars of public health and political economy, we have watched aghast as politicians endlessly debate debts and deficits with little regard for the human costs of their decisions. Over the past decade, we mined huge data sets from across the globe to understand how economic shocks — from the Great Depression to the end of the Soviet Union to the Asian financial crisis to the Great Recession — affect our health. What we’ve found is that people do not inevitably get sick or die because the economy has faltered. Fiscal policy, it turns out, can be a matter of life or death. (emphasis mine)

The whole op-ed is worth reading, especially the $293 million budget cut the CDC took as a result of the sequester. The greatest damage austerity can do is hamper our ability to monitor and understand its pernicious effects. Read: How Austerity Kills