Posts Tagged ‘public health’
For the last few years, food scarcity and the effects of industrial food have co-existed, often within the same demographic circle and within countries. This is no contradiction (although it demands far more attentive food policy) because the in the world’s industrialised agriculture and processed food system, both must exist in order that profits are made, in order that ‘economic growth’ is fulfilled.
Now, the BBC has reported that the number of overweight and obese adults in the ‘developing world’ (an unnecessary hangover that label, which media organisations must outlaw) has almost quadrupled to around one billion since 1980. The BBC report is based on a study by Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, which has said that one in three people worldwide was now overweight – the study uses these findings to urge governments to do more to influence diets.
There has indeed been a dramatic increase in the numbers of overweight or obese people in the past 30 years, as anyone who has passed through public places is likely to have observed. Previously considered a problem in richer countries, the biggest rises are in what those familiar with ‘development economics’ (another term that means effectively nothing) call ‘middle income countries’ and the ‘developing world’.
The ODI study, called ‘Future Diets’, has traced how the changes in diet – more fat, more meat, more sugar and bigger portions (what the Americans loving call ‘supersize’) – have led to a health crisis. It also looks at how policy-makers have tried to curb these excesses, usually with little success.
The official line on the causes of obesity includes higher incomes. The rationale is that those households which earn more are now able to choose the kind of foods they want, and that they choose poorly. Changes in lifestyle are mentioned, as is the increasing availability of processed foods, the dreadful impact of advertising in and on every space discernible by our senses, and the co-option of media by the food industry (along with most other consumerist industries that require propaganda to ensure quarterly profit and expectations are met and that shareholder value is protected).
But this is the very alarming result. In what are also called ’emerging economies’, where a large middle class of people with rising incomes lives in urban centres and takes less physical exercise than their parents and grandparents did, there is “an explosion in overweight and obesity in the past 30 years” which of course will lead to serious implications for public health.
The consumption of fat, salt and sugar has increased globally according to the United Nations, and these increases are significant factors in the increase seen in cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. The study has recommended more concerted public health measures from governments, similar to those taken to limit smoking in developed countries, but of course, to really bring about a change in the way new entrants into the urban middle classes eat, there must be the admission that economic ‘growth’ should first stop, then reverse. How likely is that in the next generation?
A new draft report by the National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee, which advises the government of the USA, has concluded that the evidence for a changing climate has strengthened considerably since the last such report written in 2009.
It noted that many more impacts of human-caused climate change have now been observed. “Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont have observed changes in their local climate that are outside of their experience,” said an introductory ‘letter to the people’ and added, “So, too, have coastal planners from Florida to Maine, water managers in the arid Southwest and parts of the Southeast, and Native Americans on tribal lands across the nation.”
Major media organisations have begun reporting on the enormous study, which will be kept open for public scrutiny and comment for 90 days beginning next week. [The many chapters of the draft report can be found here.]
Reuters headlined its report ‘Impact of climate change hitting home, U.S. report finds’ and said: “”The consequences of climate change are now hitting the United States on several fronts, including health, infrastructure, water supply, agriculture and especially more frequent severe weather, a congressionally mandated study has concluded.”
NBC News titled its report ‘ Massive draft report warns warming is changing life in US’ and said: “Global warming is already changing America from sea to rising sea and is affecting how Americans live, a massive new federally commissioned report says.”
In its report, ‘Climate change set to make America hotter, drier and more disaster-prone’, The Guardian said: “The report, which is not due for adoption until 2014, was produced to guide federal, state and city governments in America in making long-term plans. By the end of the 21st century, climate change is expected to result in increased risk of asthma and other public health emergencies, widespread power blackouts, and mass transit shutdowns, and possibly shortages of food.”
The National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee report placed the problem before its readers in a jargon-free introductory section that will appeal as much for its simplicity as for the effort made to encourage public participation.
“Americans are noticing changes all around them,” this section has said. “Summers are longer and hotter, and periods of extreme heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours, though in many regions there are longer dry spells in between. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the year, last later into the fall, threaten more homes, cause more evacuations, and burn more acreage. In Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and fall storms now cause more erosion and damage that is severe enough that some communities are already facing relocation.”
Can India balance its distribution of sexes at birth, is the question asked by The Lancet, in its commentary on the findings of a study on female foeticide in India.
“The prospects seem grim,” is the answer. They have been grim from the onset of economic liberalisation, and the links between relative affluence and the demand for sex determination tests and selective abortion has for two decades now been a matter of concern for social and community minded doctors. [See ‘Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community’]
The counter-intuitive link between two key factors of development – more years of education and households becoming wealthier – and female foeticide have for long been an under-documented subject. This weakness in documentation has been surprising simply because, whether in the mega-metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai or in the cities and towns that are fast-growing, the number of ‘clinics’ providing sex determination tests has also grown. These are often camouflagued within a welter of signs advertising the features of a polyclinic, where the services on offer to middle class Indian families can range from liposuction to cardiac surgery to hip replacement. What else they do is well known, but not spoken about.
That is why The Lancet commentary has said that the demand for sons among wealthy parents is being satisfied by the medical community through the provision of illegal services of fetal sex-determination and sex-selective abortion. “The financial incentive for physicians to undertake this illegal activity seems to be far greater than the penalties associated with breaking the law. The market for sex determination and selective abortion has been estimated to be worth at least US$100 million per year, and the pervasive nature of the low sex ratio at birth suggests that this is not a consequence of a minority of errant physicians in a few states.”
I would say that this is an under-estimate of the size of the sex determination and female foeticide ‘industry’. Since the machinery required is relatively expensive (compared to the needs of a typical public health centre) and the clients are – as this study now helps makes clear – middle class urban Indian households who do not balk at the bill, this figure may under-estimate the true size of this illegal and ghastly business by a large degree. We don’t know how much because it is hidden.
There’s no doubt India’s medical establishment must be held accountable on moral, social, and legal grounds for the staggering imbalance in India’s sex ratio, which the 2011 Census brings out in relief. [See the post on the first set of detailed state-level data is almost complete as a release from the Census of India, 2011 Census and also ‘A population turning point’.]
Although there have been efforts to increase the penalty for non-compliance on the part of technicians and physicians, the sluggishness of the Indian judicial system, and the absence of systematic record-keeping of births, will remain a major hurdle for effective implementation of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act. For example, 800 court cases against doctors in 17 states have resulted in only 55 convictions.
In The Lancet, Prabhat Jha and colleagues have presented a timely analysis of trends in sex ratio at birth in India, and show that the ratio for second-order births, conditional on the first born being a girl, fell from 906 girls per 1000 boys in 1990, to 836 girls per 1000 boys in 2005. On the basis of this finding, the investigators estimate that there have been between 3.1 and 6 million abortions of female foetuses in the past decade. This is an astonishing sum – the upper value indicates a per day countrywide rate of 1,640 abortions!
“In view of the unverifiable assumptions that are needed to derive statistical estimates of sex-selective abortions, the value of the analysis by Jha and colleagues is mainly independent confirmation of two important aspects of the sex ratio in India that have been reported previously with different data,” The Lancet has said. “The first is that sex imbalance at birth seems to be particularly concentrated in households with high education and wealth. This pattern suggests that dominance of the son-preference norm is unlikely to be offset, at least in the short term, by socioeconomic development. Second is that the overall problem of sex imbalance seems to arise throughout India, including in Kerala, which has often been characterised as a model state for social development and gender equality. The problem of sex imbalance seems to be a function of socio-economic status, not geography.”
[The Lancet’s recent coverage of public health and India has been rigorous and exemplary. See this post for its series of papers on India’s path to full health coverage.]
There is already coverage of the study and some analysis in the news media. Here is a selection:
Reuters has reported – Up to 12 million girls were aborted over the last three decades in India by parents that tended to be richer and more educated, a large study in India found, and researchers warned that the figure could rise with falling fertility rates. The missing daughters occurred mostly in families which already had a first born daughter. Although the preference for boys runs across Indian society, the abortions were more likely to be carried out by educated parents who were aware of ultrasound technology and who could afford abortions.
“The number of girls being aborted is increasing and may have reached 12 million with the lower estimate of 4 million over the last three decades,” said lead author Professor Prabhat Jha at the Center for Global Health Research in Toronto, Canada. “The logic is families are saying if Nature gives us a first boy, then we don’t do anything. But if Nature gives a first girl then perhaps we would consider ultrasound testing and selective abortion for the subsequent children,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
The Indian Express has reported – They analysed census data and 2.5 lakh birth histories from national surveys to estimate differences in girl-boy ratio for second births in families where the first-born child had been a girl. They found that this girl-boy ratio fell from 906 girls per 1000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005. “Declines were much greater in mothers with 10 or more years of education than those with no education and in wealthier households. But if the first child had been a boy, there was no fall in the girl-boy ratio for second child over the study period,” Jha said. The article authors said this suggests that selective abortion of female foetuses, usually after a first-born girl, had been more common in richer and educated families.
The Washington Post has reported – The study found that, from 1990 to 2005, the “sex ratio” of first-born female children in India did not change significantly nor differ from what was biologically expected. (In 1990, it was 943 girls per 1,000 boys, and in 2005 it was 966). However, in families whose first-born was a girl, the incidence of the second-born being a girl fell almost steadily over that period, from 906 per 1,000 boys in 1990 to 836 in 2005. During the period, the trend increased among families in which the mother had 10 or more years of education but did not change in families in which the mother had no education. The sex ratio fell especially sharply in the richest 20 percent of households, Jha and his colleagues found. The findings were the same in both Hindu and Muslim households.
The most extreme decline in the probability of having a girl occurred in families in which the first two children were girls. In that case, the ratio of girls to boys in the third-born child was 768 to 1,000 in 2006. This came at a time when the average family size in India was 2.6 children — a huge reduction from earlier generations. The overall phenomenon of many more boys than girls among children under age 6 was once limited to northern and western India. Now it has spread throughout the country, Jha said. In 1991, about 10 percent of India’s population lived in states where the sex ratio for girls was below 915. Today, 56 percent of the population does.
[The paper is: ‘Trends in selective abortions of girls in India: analysis of nationally representative birth histories from 1990 to 2005 and census data from 1991 to 2011’ by Prabhat Jha, Maya A Kesler, Rajesh Kumar, Faujdar Ram, Usha Ram, Lukasz Aleksandrowicz, Diego G Bassani, Shailaja Chandra, Jayant K Banthia and is published in The Lancet, 24 May 2011.]
This book is as much about the lives and times of ordinary people as it is about social medicine. It is a doctor’s story about her practice, which lets her extrapolate about the realities of rural India for all Indians. Set in Gadchiroli, a district in central India, known for being an underdeveloped and backward area.
The introduction to ‘Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community’, tells us that this district is where Dr Rani Bang and her husband, Dr Abhay Bang, set up the clinic for the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH) and practised medicine that explicitly catered to the Raj Gond, Madiya Gond, Pardhan and Halibi, the dominant tribal groups, along with non-tribal poor people who live in the area.
This settlement goes back to prehistory and is a part of the ancient Dandakaranya forest mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Rani Bang’s research found that 92 percent of women in this region had no access to treatment for gynaecological disorders in the absence of women doctors. Such neglect was exacerbated by ‘development’ since rural families were, and remain, unprepared for the rapid changes wrought in the spheres of education, information, material enhancement and changes in lifestyle, which impact on relationships and health.
The book plays many roles: a commentary on the ‘chronic myopia’ of a planning process that refuses to see millions of Indians or to think of the ways in which their lives could be bettered; careful observations on the enormous social changes that impact on tribal society where traditional kinship and ecological systems being sorely stressed; and a logbook of case medicine.
In their own way, the Bangs have set in motion a type of revolution that equips people, communities and administrators with the tools to ‘build an indigenous expression of development, one in which the fundamentals of healthcare, interdependence and sustainable economics are paramount’. The last chapter of the book summarises the author’s views on recommendations for policy makers.
I was associated in a small way with the early work that went into ‘Putting Women First: Women and Health in a Rural Community’, and was then asked to write the foreword, a signal honour. I have extracted a few paragraphs of the foreword below, and you can read the full foreword [pdf] here. You can order the book directly from the publisher, Stree Samya, here.
From the foreword:
In shifting to another section of the Gadhiroli (and indeed of the rural Indian) canvas, ‘Putting Women First’ speaks sagely of the manifold aspects of the care our population needs: of regional disparities and critical gaps in the health care delivery system, of infant mortality, obstetric care, maternal and child health, of ‘dais’ and anganwadis, medical termination of pregnancy, and the desperate need for better-staffed primary health centres. “Meeting health needs of women through a system that is sensitive to the differential needs of men and women and their differential access to health care also needs to be taken into account,” recommended the National Commission on Population. Bang-bai’s clinic practices that sensitivity, day in and day out.
The differentials that Search grapples with routinely are daunting. The very premise of girls’ education, especially education of poor girls, is based on an understanding that education is critical to social development, that it leads to lower fertility rates and better child-rearing practices for example. On the one hand, the benefits of women’s education are compelling yet all too often, the struggle for the right of girls and women to education gets reduced to issues of access alone. In general, it has been easier for women’s groups and voluntary groups to work with girls outside the system of formal education, especially the government system of education which is notoriously inflexible.
If one was to describe a large circle around the Search campus, of say 50 kilometres, one would see in the nearby settlements of Aheri, Brahmapuri and on the Raipur road the assembly-line blocks that in rural India purport to be schools. What does it mean to be ‘schooled’ in one of these miserable containers? Conditions in these schools are hardly conducive to meaningful learning – none possesses the very basic set of facilities such as adequate classrooms, toilets and drinking water, teaching-learning materials and libraries. As is the case elsewhere in India, physical inaccessibility, irrelevance of curricula, repeated ‘failure’ and harsh treatment in schools contribute to children dropping out or never enrolling. According to a National Sample Survey Organisation survey (1998), about 26 per cent of those who had dropped out of government schools cited reasons other than poverty – unfriendly school environment, doubts about the usefulness of schooling and an inability to cope with studies. Among girls in rural areas these factors accounted for over 75 per cent of dropouts.