Greece and creditors guilty of 'denialism' over public health crisis
By Benjamin Fox
The Greek government and its creditors are guilty of "denialism" about the scale of the public health crisis caused by the country's harsh austerity programme, leading international medical researchers have claimed.
A huge rise in suicides, HIV infections and infant mortality rates are just a few of the consequences on public health of Athens' spending cuts, according to a report published on Friday (21 February) by the Lancet, one of the world's leading medical journals.
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The number of HIV infections among drug users soared from 15 in 2009 to 484 in 2012 as a result of cuts to AIDS prevention programmes, while infant mortality also rose by 43 percent. Meanwhile, locally transmitted malaria, which had previously been effectively eradicated, has returned to the country.
Mental illness has also been on the rise, with the percentage of the Greek population suffering from "major depression" rising from 3.3 percent to 8.2 percent between 2008 and 2011, alongside a 45 percent increase in the national suicide rate.
Rapidly increasing levels of unemployment has left an estimated 800,000 Greeks without unemployment benefits and health coverage, the report claims.
The researchers - from Cambridge University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - say that the Greek government and the international community have continued to claim that the spending cuts have not damaged public health care despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
"In view of this detailed body of evidence for the harmful effects of austerity on health, the failure of public recognition by successive Greek governments and international agencies is remarkable," says the report.
"This dismissal meets the criteria for denialism".
Instead, the report argues that policy-makers in the Troika - which implements bailout programmes - and Greece should have paid heed to the example of Iceland, which refused to slash its healthcare and social services budget when negotiating its own rescue package with the IMF in 2008.
As part of its €240 billion bailout package negotiated with the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Greece was required to cut health spending to 6 percent of GDP by 2011, a target which it met.
The country's hospital budget has been slashed by 26 percent, while spending on prescription drugs will have been more than halved to €2 billion in four years by the end of 2014
Nor are public cut-backs likely to end any time soon. In January, Antonis Samaras' coalition government was forced to scrap plans to introduce a mandatory €25 fee for hospital admission after junior coalition partner Pasok insisted that it would not support the measure.
However, the government indicated that it would have to raise the €40 million that the scheme would have generated through other measures.
But deep public spending cuts have done nothing to arrest the country's economic woes. Greece has endured six consecutive years of recession since 2007 but hopes to return to growth this year.
"Cuts appear to have been made where they have resulted in the greatest harm instead of the greatest good," said a Lancet editorial, accompanying the report, on Friday.
"Rather than tackle underlying cultures of over-investigation and inappropriate prescribing that might face opposition from vested interests, softer targets such as public health, mental health, and drug misuse programmes were slashed," it added.