Greek debt crisis, cutbacks may fuel health ‘tragedy’

Greek debt crisis, cutbacks may fuel health ‘tragedy’

Athens: Greece’s debt crisis and ensuing cutbacks have played havoc with public health with a spike in ailments, suicides and depression, experts say, amid warnings of a “Greek tragedy" in the making.

“Overall, the picture of health in Greece is concerning," said David Stuckler from Britain’s Cambridge University who piloted a letter published in The Lancet recently entitled “Health effects of financial crisis: omens of a Greek tragedy".

“It reminds us that, in an effort to finance debts, ordinary people are paying the ultimate price: losing access to care and preventive services, facing higher risks of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and in the worst cases losing their lives."

“I find my patients very much more under pressure and stressed, their incomes are declining," the osteopath said, adding that their relations at work and in the neighbourhood were strained, leading to muscular and bone ailments.

“Often they do not understand why they are in this state and tell me that they have not made any sudden movements or picked up heavy weights," he said.

The Lancet document underlined that the number of suicides had risen by 40% in the first quarter of this year compared to the first half of 2010 and that many were prompted by the inability to pay back loans.

However the suicide rate is much lower than in northern Europe. In 2009, it stood at three per 100,000 people or about a third lower than the European average, according to Eurostat.

“Violence has also risen, and homicide and theft rates nearly doubled between 2007 and 2009," The Lancet said.

A depression helpline operating on a daily basis from May 2008, also said it had seen a spurt in callers.

“In particular, from January to June 2010, 14.3% of the phone calls had to do with the economic crisis whereas from January to June 2011, 28.7% of the phone calls address this issue," said Eleni Louki from Depression Helpline.

Louki said 64.4% of callers were women and 61.6% were from Athens and surrounding areas.

The health ministry meanwhile said one Greek man in four and one woman in three suffered from depression -- far higher than the global average of one out of eight and one out of five respectively.

Greece has a sovereign debt of over €350 billion ($480 billion) and faces interest repayments of €17.9 billion in 2012, up from €16.3 billion in 2011.

Athens has been kept waiting for two months for a slice of bankrupcy-saving funds, part of a €110 billion ($150-billion) loan from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund contracted last year.

Accused by its peers of dragging its feet over tough economic reforms promised in return for the money, the government has gone into spending cuts overdrive this past month, pushing through new austerity legislation that has caused wide protests.

Budget cuts in vital sectors such as health could lead to a spike in HIV infections, “after the loss of a third of the country’s street-work programmes" between 2009 and 2010, The Lancet warned.

“The latest data suggest that new infections will rise by 52% in 2011 compared with 2010 (922 new cases versus 605), with half of the currently observed increases attributable to infections among intravenous drug users.

“Many new HIV infections are also linked to an increase in prostitution (and associated unsafe sex)," it said.

The budget cuts have also hit psychiatric and mental health institutions, according to Stelios Stylianidis, a psychiatry professor at the Pantion University in Athens.

The only silver lining in the crisis and resultant budget cuts is that Greeks are drinking less and alcoholism is on the decline, The Lancet said.

“There have been marked reductions in alcohol consumption and, according to police data, drink-driving has decreased," it said.