Latin America’s Emerging Burden of Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases

By Fernando De Maio*

Photo credit: FLICKR.com/diapositivasmentales / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: FLICKR.com/diapositivasmentales / Foter.com / CC BY

Despite significant improvements over the past 30 years in some of the most crucial health indicators – including increases in life expectancy and decreases in infant mortality – Latin America faces an impending epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.  The region has avoided the worst effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  Brazil, for example, is now widely accepted by health policy analysts as offering the world valuable lessons for combating the spread of HIV and in ensuring access to life-saving antiretroviral medicine.  But chronic non-communicable diseases are now stretching under-funded and fragmented health care systems, revealing deep lines of social inequality.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of an impending epidemic of such ailments, which are already the leading causes of death in all areas of the world except for sub-Saharan Africa.  In Latin America, chronic diseases account for more than 60 percent of deaths, with some variance between countries (more than 70 percent in Uruguay, more than 60 percent in Argentina and Chile, but less than 40 percent in Bolivia and Paraguay).  The latest data indicate that this burden is growing across the region, driven by increases in some of the most important risk factors (physical inactivity and obesity in particular).  Surveys in the region allow us to disaggregate national data, revealing the social inequalities underlying the problem.

In Argentina, we have used the National Risk Factor Surveys from 2005 and 2009 to examine how social gradients are changing:

  • Physical inactivity – an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease – has increased substantially (from 46 to 55 percent).  The further down we go in the socioeconomic hierarchy, the more this important risk factor seems to be increasing.
  • Obesity has also increased in this four-year period (from 14 to 18 percent), with a steepening social gradient for women.
  • Data on diabetes from these surveys are mixed.  The percentage of the adult population told they have diabetes or high blood sugar has risen (8.4 to 9.6 percent), but experts believe the increase reflects both increases in diabetes in the population and an in access to health care resulting in more cases being detected.
  • Some good news may be found in preventive cancer screening: rates of mammograms and pap smears have increased, and social gradients for mammograms are decreasing, raising the hope of diminished inequalities in cancer mortality in the future.

The WHO’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health recently concluded that “reducing health inequalities is… an ethical imperative.  Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.”  Among its recommendations is a call for the routine monitoring of health inequalities.  The growing body of data documents the linkage between inequality and the occurrence of chronic non-communicable diseases – demonstrating that, fundamentally, it is a question of social justice.  Social inequalities in physical inactivity, obesity, diabetes – and, crucially, tobacco consumption – are not natural but socially and politically produced.  Empirical research in the coming years will need not only to document the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases in aggregate terms, but also to closely monitor the inequalities embedded in national figures.  Policy analysis will likewise need to examine not just the national-level effects of new initiatives, such as new taxes on tobacco products or new standards for salt consumption, but, at a disaggregated level of analysis, examine how new initiatives affect people across the socioeconomic spectrum.

* Dr. De Maio is a professor in the Department of Sociology at DePaul University.

 

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