The health concerns of the developing world are myriad. The World Health Organization estimates that of the 2.2 million people who die every year due to diarrhea, the majority are children in developing nations; children without access to clean water or adequate sanitation. Developing countries are likewise more susceptible to preventable, treatable infections such as malaria and tuberculosis. But despite the health care needs of the developing world, it’s likewise important to remember that developed countries, too, are susceptible to many diseases – just ask China.
In the past 30 years, China has many times been called the world’s fastest growing economy. The country now exports more goods than any other nation, and with that industrial and financial growth has come huge improvements in individual wealth and standards of living. But, China’s development has also brought new health care concerns. The kind of concerns that affect a wealthier and not necessarily healthier populace: cancer, diabetes, and other lifestyle-related diseases.
Last month, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that around 114 million people in China are suffering from diabetes – that’s 12 percent of all adults, and means that worldwide, one in three people with diabetes are in China. This report from the American Medical Association was the first survey of its kind, and researchers were surprised to find such a wide scale prevalence of type 2 diabetes, the diabetes type which is related to obesity, heart attack and stroke.
Dr. Ning Guang, the lead researcher of the Association’s study, compared China’s current diabetes problem to America’s struggle with the same disease. In America, more than 25 million adults and children are currently living with diabetes, which is the leading cause of kidney disease in the country. Health care workers have for many years expressed concern that if Americans do not make widespread lifestyle changes – leading less sedentary lifestyles and eating healthier foods – the prevalence of diabetes could increase.
In China, Dr. Guang says that a sudden increase in wealth has lead to changes in the Chinese diet. Instead of eating meals based around rice, vegetables and a bit of meat, many families in China are now consuming more Western-style foods, including hamburgers, carb-rich sandwiches and high-sodium snacks. These diet changes, combined with a decrease in daily physical activity are, according to Dr. Guang, contributing in a big way toward China’s current rates of diabetes. Dr. Guang has recommended that the nation create more public health services and education to combat the problem. If no action is taken, Guang says that China may soon face an epidemic of chronic illnesses such as kidney disease and cardiovascular disease. Indeed, even discounting the risk of diabetes, the health problems associated with obesity itself are numerous – gout, cancer and osteoarthritis, for example.
Less than 25 years ago, the Chinese populace faced very different health problems. Before 1990, doctors struggled to treat and prevent cholera, typhoid and scarlet fever. Infant mortality numbers were high, and poverty on top of a lack of government-funded services meant little to no health care for many Chinese people. However, in the past quarter century, the health landscape in China has changed drastically. Major cities now have modern facilities, medical education and care is more standardized across different regions, and new vaccinations mean that many illnesses can now be prevented. Perhaps most exciting in China’s health care developments are the recent governmental efforts to offer universal health coverage to all Chinese citizens.
But, as we already know, the health problems that China will face in the future are different from those faced in the past. Another important health issue in modern China is air pollution. Due to huge amounts of industrialization, and a lack of environmental protections, China now experiences some of the worst air quality in the world. And indoor air pollution is an issue as well – many families still burn coal or crop residue inside their homes, leading to respiratory illnesses in women and young children especially. The air outdoors isn’t much better. A study this year from the Health Effects Institute of Boston found that smog in China may be causing as many as 1.2 million deaths, and is especially harmful to citizens already struggling with a respiratory problem such as asthma.
The China of today must also fight HIV and AIDS. In 2011, a study from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that rates of HIV amongst college students and older adults greatly increased over a five year period. According to the Center’s study and statistics from the Chinese government, in 2005, there were 237 reported cases of AIDS in men over 60 years old. Five years later, 2,546 incidences of the disease were reported in that same age group. One director with the Center for Disease Control has said that this increase in AIDS cases amongst an elder populace may be due to adults in China living longer, healthier lives, and therefore staying sexually active while also seeking sex services.
Luckily, health officials in China are taking steps to reduce the prevalence of AIDS and HIV, and to increase education and awareness. A project conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières along with the Chinese Center for Disease Control saw good results in the southern province Guangxi, after seven years of offering HIV services and information. That project has now been passed over to local health workers, and other similar programs are being considered; especially ones that will target rural communities, or high-risk populations such as intravenous drug users.