Diseases of affluence are affecting people in poor countries

Europeans have been exporting their maladies throughout history. They seem to be doing it again, but in a new way. In the past, the problem was infection. Now, illnesses associated with Western living standards are the fastest growing killers in poor and middle-income countries, according to the Economist.


  • Heart disease – supposedly an illness of affluence – is by far and away the biggest cause of global mortality; it was responsible for 17.5m deaths worldwide in 2005.

  • Next comes cancer, another non-infectious sickness, which caused more deaths than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria put together.

  • In total, chronic conditions took the lives of 35m people in 2005, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) – twice as many as all infectious diseases.

    Why are poor countries so vulnerable to the diseases of the rich? The simplest explanation for chronic diseases' increasing importance is that people in poor countries now live long enough to suffer them, says the Economist:

  • Thanks to better sanitation, more food and improved public health, average life expectancy in low and middle-income countries has risen from 50 in 1965 to 65 in 2005.

  • The increase in the poorest countries was proportionately greater: from 47 to 63.

  • At the same time, because of increased health spending and safer water, infectious diseases have declined, keeping more people healthy, but at risk for chronic disease.

    Yet despite all the evidence that chronic disease is the world's biggest health problem, most poor countries focus on infectious disease and their health policies are usually based on the idea that infections should be controlled before chronic conditions, says the Economist. These choices no doubt partly reflect bureaucratic inertia at health ministries and investment in fighting infections by medical charities and drugs firms.

    Source: Editorial, The maladies of affluence, Economist, August 11, 2007.

    For text: http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9616897

    For more on Health Issues: http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/index.php?Article_Category=16

    FMF Policy Bulletin/ 21 August 2007
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