The impacts of the global economic downturn on Europe’s health are becoming clear, as an increase in suicides in England in 2008-10 were significantly associated with rising unemployment, according to new research from the Lancet.
Suicides as a result of unemployment in England during this period resulted in an estimated 1000 excess deaths.
As part of a series of seven reports published by the Lancet today, Financial crisis, austerity and health in Europe, highlighted that the effects of economic turbulence on health are generally poorly understood, despite having been researched for nearly 100 years.
The research said that the number of suicides in people younger than 65 years has grown in the EU since 2007, reversing a steady decrease in many countries. In member states that joined the EU in or after 2004, suicides peaked in 2009 and remained high in 2010, whereas a further increase was noted in 2010 among the 15 pre-2004 countries.
In addition, the prevalence of mental health issues in unemployed people was found to be more than twice than in employed people at 34% and 16% respectively. The report also said the negative effects of unemployment on mental health were less in countries with strong employment protection systems than those with weaker frameworks.
In Greece, where strict austerity measures are ongoing and substantial cuts have been made to public health provision, HIV infections from drug injections increased 10-fold in 2011 and worsened in 2012.
Further research also revealed that self reported general health had deteriorated among Greek citizens, with more people reporting their health status as "bad" or "very bad" in 2009 than in 2007.
As a result of the economic crises and its countermeasures, the paper said that unintended and pronounced effects have been created on public health, yet public health experts have remained largely silent during the crisis.
The report said: "The Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Commission, despite its legal obligation to assess the health effects of EU policies, has not assessed the effects of the troika's drive for austerity, and has instead limited EU commentary to advice about how health ministries can cut their budgets.
"A small source of optimism is that European civil society organisations, including professional bodies, have spoken out about the adverse health effects of cuts to health and social spending. The question is whether anyone will listen."
However, the Lancet said such negative effects were not always inevitable, as Iceland, one of the first countries in the EU to be hit by the financial crisis and which did not introduce austerity measures, appears to have had very few adverse health consequences.
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine professor of European public health Martin McKee (who led the Lancet Series papers) said: "Europe has changed greatly in the past 40 years, and the immense differences in health care and life expectancy highlight this.
"While some countries have excelled, others have withdrawn services due to the financial crisis, failed to adapt to new health challenges, and lacked the will to implement public health policies around tobacco and alcohol. Policy makers must act now before children, migrants, and older people face a public health crisis, both in the UK and across Europe."
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