When Greece’s economy took a plunge, murders and disease rates soared, according to a study published on Thursday that suggests the impact of the European nation’s austerity cuts may be worse than expected.
Suicide and murder rates climbed from 2007 to 2009, particularly among men, and unusual outbreaks of malaria, West Nile virus and HIV took clinicians by surprise, said the findings in the American Journal of Public Health.
The decline in health came as Greece’s once robust economy collapsed into recession following the global economic crisis of 2007, with unemployment rising from 7.2 percent in 2008 to 22.6 percent early last year.
Greece took out billions in loans to stave off financial collapse and implemented austerity measures that included a major downsizing of the Greek Ministry of Health, where spending fell nearly 24 percent from 2009 to 2011.
For patients, the cuts meant many services that were once free now cost money out of pocket. There were salary freezes and layoffs in the health sector, and many preventive programs were halted.
With debates raging in political and economic circles over the true costs and merits of austerity, a team of Greek clinicians and US researchers set out to document the effects of the policies on the health of people in Greece.
“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 lead author Elias Kondilis, a researcher at Aristotle University.
Among the general population of about 11 million people, suicide rates rose 16 percent and murders climbed nearly 26 percent from 2007 to 2009, said the findings, which draw on Greek government data.
Meanwhile, deaths from infectious disease increased 13 percent in those two years.
Among men under 65 who were more likely to face the perils of unemployment, the numbers were higher — a 23 percent higher suicide rate, a 25 percent rise in murder rate and a 27.6 percent rise in deaths from infectious diseases.
Normally, preventive measures in developed nations like Greece are successful at keeping diseases such as malaria and HIV to a relatively low incidence, co-author Howard Waitzkin of the University of New Mexico said.
However, when programs like needle-exchanges for drug users and condoms for at-risk groups were slashed, the disease rates ballooned.
Researchers were surprised to see three infectious disease outbreaks in a span of 18 months from July 2010 to December 2011, he said.
They included a spate of West Nile virus that infected 197 and killed 35 people, and an outbreak of malaria in southern Greece.
Also, there was a 57 percent spike in newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection, from 607 new HIV cases in 2010 to 954 in 2011.
“These aren’t small percentage changes,” said Waitzkin, distinguished professor emeritus of sociology and medicine.
The study said Greece initially attributed the outbreaks to environmental risk factors, but the fact that public health measures had to be deployed after the fact implies that “the risks of transmission had not been addressed through prevention.”
Waitzkin said similar problems were seen in Argentina a decade ago, and the same issues could loom on the US horizon as the US government implements across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester.
“The concerns are much broader than simply Greece and these kinds of policies in our view are very dangerous for public health,” he said.
According to Angela Mattie, an expert in healthcare management at the Quinnipiac University School of Business, good health is often linked to strong finances.
“We know in the United States, for example, that employment status is tied to insurance coverage, which is tied to medical care, and early identification and treatment of disease,” said Mattie, who was not involved in the study. “People in better income brackets are at an advantage.”