Ebola and Chronic Diseases in Latin America: Keeping the Success Stories Alive

Written by

Antwan Jones
Antwan Jones Antwan Jones is Assistant Professor of Sociology and of Africana Studies at The George Washington University. Receiving degrees from Duke University and Bowling Green State University, he has published research on various health outcomes. However, he focuses his research on the residential and neighborhood context in which individuals live as a way to understand health disparities among marginalized populations. Engaged in national and international research, Jones has firmly located himself in the field of urban sociology by revealing how residential processes (such as housing instability) and neighborhood contexts (such as food deserts and concentrated poverty) are essential to the study of adult cardiovascular disease, child obesity and disability among the elderly. Jones is currently a board member of the Capital City Area Health Education Center as well as the Society for the Study of Social Problems, and he has been named lead faculty in obesity research on Webmed Central.

The world is sleeping with one eye open and that eye is directed toward the current situation in West Africa. News outlets have been delivering up-to-the-minute reports regarding new cases of Ebola within their backyards. In the U.S., there are similar stories. Recently, President Barack Obama met with Nina Pham, the nurse who contracted Ebola after treating the recently-deceased Thomas Eric Duncan. However, this kind of intense coverage can excite panic and lead to unnecessary policies to deal with a small risk for the general population.

Case in point, while only four cases of Ebola has been found in the United States (with one leading to death), there are discussions surrounding quarantines for individuals who travel from Ebola-stricken nations.

Latin America is responding in a way consistent with the global panic surrounding the virus. In the most extreme case, Colombia has been denying visas to anyone who visited several of these nations during the past month. But, leaders in this region recently met to offer assistance to fighting the disease and many countries agreed to send health care professionals to help in eliminating Ebola in West Africa where the death toll is nearing five thousand. This move to assist may be related to the region’s most recent bout of communicative diseases, particularly the chikungunya virus and Chagas disease, which, like Ebola, has received global attention.

There is another tie between the diseases that deserves attention: all are highly prevalent in areas where poverty is pervasive. Latin America has been touted a public health success story because of its increasingly aging population. Usually, rapid aging is a characteristic of high-income countries who are experiencing lower number of deaths at early ages. However, for the case of Latin America, a region where the social and economic inequality is high, we see this “greying” of the population, which is why it is considered to be a success – lower mortality in low-income countries.

Yet, it still faces challenges with diseases that are associated with socioeconomic status. However, the region’s growing economic cache has benefitted its population’s health. Representing only 8 percent of the global population in 2004 and 2014, death rates in the region have been low and stable, with about 6 deaths per 1,000 residents. At the same time, the percentage of people who are 65 and older has incrementally increased over 10 years.

This aging trend suggests that government leaders in the region will need to face a unique challenge in the upcoming years: how to deal with chronic diseases that appear later in life. Many leaders in the Latin American region recognize this as a significant future concern. Diabetes and hypertension are considered to be a major threat to health. Many of these conditions are precursors to serious weight and health problems, but are partially preventative through behavioral or lifestyle factors such as eating nutritious foods and beverages, limiting stress and consistently exercising.

In a recent study, my co-authors and I show that among countries in this region, childhood and adult socioeconomic status (particularly income and education) are related to hypertension and the chance of experiencing a heart attack. However, greater income and education did not lower these cardiovascular experiences among individuals in all countries. Looking at Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, we found that education and income lowered cardiovascular risk in some countries but not in others. This finding suggests that any policy that is geared towards dealing with these more prevalent health risks need to be targeted by country.

While research highlights the need for targeted interventions that promote healthy living later in life, such research is not meant to discount the need for preventive measures to prevent the re-emergence of communicable diseases. The singular tie that can benefit both is a substantial increase in the economic profile of the country. More income and education would be beneficial to health in the region, and is universally linked to decreased prevalence of many health outcomes, including cardiovascular disease. Another crucial strategy would be to expand universal health coverage (UHC) to handle immediate and long-term health problems. Expanding care as a result of public investment in Latin America could potentially change the face of disease and increase the number of disability-free years that individuals in this aging population. Smart implementation of UHC would truly be a success story that could serve as an additional example to nations who are less inclined to believe that coverage for all is a “moral imperative” that serves the good of all people.

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