WASHINGTON, April 18, 2013 (AFP) - When Greece's economy took a plunge, murders and disease rates soared, according to a study published Thursday that suggests the impact of the European nation's austerity cuts may be worse than expected.
Suicide and murder rates climbed from 2007 to 2009 particularly among men, and unusual outbreaks of malaria, West Nile virus and HIV took clinicians by surprise, said the findings in the American Journal of Public Health.
The decline in health came as Greece's once robust economy collapsed into recession following the global economic crisis of 2007, with unemployment rising from 7.2 percent in 2008 to 22.6 percent in early 2012.
Greece took out billions in loans to stave off financial collapse and implemented austerity measures that included a major downsizing of the Ministry of Health, where spending fell nearly 24 percent from 2009 to 2011.
For patients, the cuts meant many services that were once free now cost money out of pocket, including higher prices for hospitalization. There were salary freezes and layoffs in the health sector, and many preventive programs were halted.
With debates raging in political and economic circles over the true costs and merits of austerity, a team of Greek clinicians and US researchers set out to document the effects of the policies on the health of people in Greece.
"We were expecting that these austerity policies would negatively affect health services and health outcomes, but the results were much worse than we imagined," said lead author Elias Kondilis, a researcher at Aristotle University.
Among the general population of some 11 million people on the Mediterranean island, suicide rates rose 16 percent and murders climbed nearly 26 percent from 2007 to 2009, said the findings, which draw on Greek government data.
Meanwhile, deaths in the general population from infectious disease increased 13 percent in those two years.
Among men under 65 who were more likely to face the perils of unemployment, the numbers were higher -- a 23 percent higher suicide rate, a 25 percent rise in murder rate and a 27.6 percent rise in deaths from infectious diseases.
Normally, preventive measures in developed nations like Greece are successful at keeping diseases such as malaria and HIV to a relatively low incidence, co-author Howard Waitzkin of the University of New Mexico told AFP.
But when programs like needle-exchanges for drug users and condoms for at-risk groups were slashed, the disease rates ballooned.
Researchers were surprised to see three infectious disease outbreaks in a span of 18 months from July 2010 to December 2011, he said.
They included an spate of West Nile virus that infected 197 and killed 35 people and an outbreak of malaria in southern Greece.
Also, there was a 57 percent spike in newly diagnosed cases of HIV infection, from 607 new HIV cases in 2010 to 954 in 2011.
Among injection drug users, the impact was more dramatic -- 15 new cases of HIV documented in 2010 compared to 241 cases in 2011, or a 1,506 percent increase.
"These aren't small percentage changes," said Waitzkin, distinguished professor emeritus of sociology and medicine at the University of New Mexico.
The study said Greece initially attributed the outbreaks to environmental risk factors but the fact that public health measures had to be deployed after the fact implies that "the risks of transmission had not been addressed through prevention."
Mental disorders and substance abuse also climbed.
Waitzkin said similar problems were seen in Argentina a decade ago, and the same issues could loom on the US horizon as the American government implements across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester.
"The concerns are much broader than simply Greece and these kinds of policies in our view are very dangerous for public health," he said.