Every year on October 17, the United Nations recognises the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This year’s theme, dubbed “leave no one behind”, calls for a global and united effort to confront extreme poverty in the post-2015 era. Since the start of this commemorative day in 1987, millions have been successfully brought out of destitution through global efforts. In fact, the first of the Millenium Development Goals – which aimed to halve the 1990 poverty rate by 2015 – was met five years ahead of schedule. But eradication is still out of reach. Today, estimates put 17% of people in the world living on less than $1.25 a day – that is roughly equivalent to 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty.
The declines in the malaria burden as well as other diseases have played a large part in reducing poverty. Poor health can impoverish, and poverty can lead to poor health. But it also follows that improvements in one can benefit the other: this is why it is important to understand how poverty and disease are linked and how health interventions can help alleviate poverty.
1. Cost remains a barrier to improved health
Despite a range of effective prevention and treatment methods, these are often not fully adopted or accessed due to costs. For people living in extreme poverty, even seemingly low-cost solutions are often out of reach, with fees for consultation, drugs and transportation often delaying or preventing people from seeking of life-saving treatment.
Treatment and prevention are often not accessible to those who need them due to mismanagement and conflicting priorities of national and international actors. This has been an intractable struggle for the 17 neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), most of which disproportionately affect the poorest groups and attract limited international attention. For example, the cost of treating a child for soil-transmitted worms comes to about $0.50 for an entire year and can make a huge difference in improving life opportunities. Yet the disease still runs rampant, affecting over 1.5 billion people worldwide, causing anaemia and malnutrition.
2. The causes of disease are perpetuated by poor living conditions
Poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies, as well as poor diet, are all risk factors for disease. Many of the diseases that disproportionately affect poor populations are a result of low levels of hygiene or other factors caused by poverty. For example, schistosomiasis (one of the NTDs) is spread through contact with water that contains parasites from freshwater snails. This disease alone affects almost 210 million people worldwide.
Many common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea – the second leading cause of death in children under five – are also caused by poor sanitation and can be easily prevented through access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation and hygiene.
3. Disease leads to absenteeism and lost opportunities
A high disease burden carries heavy costs for individuals. Each day that a child spends at home due to malaria or other illness is a day that they are unable to go to school. For adults, being sick means that they cannot work and earn money to support their families. For some diseases, the debilitating effects of disease and the resulting stigma can lead to low employability and fewer economic opportunities. Added together, these factors constitute a major drag on the economy. Some experts predict that malaria alone inhibits GDP growth by approximately 1.3% every year.
4. Seeking treatment costs time and money
When someone gets sick in a remote village, they often have to travel to the nearest health facility for treatment – a trip that will inevitably cost time and, most probably, money. For families or individuals that are already facing economic hardships, this can be particularly detrimental. Most of the money spent on treatment comes from patients’ own pockets. Out-of-pocket payments for health can cause households to incur catastrophic expenditures, which in turn can push them into poverty. Bringing healthcare solutions closer to the community is one solution, but many regions are still left uncovered.
5. Government health expenditure diverts money from other investments
Governments in high burden countries expend vast resources to control disease transmission. As long as malaria and other diseases continue to plague these societies, funds that would otherwise be invested in education, social services or other important sectors must be diverted. Disease can also deter external investors from setting up shop in these countries. For example, high malaria rates have been linked to decreased tourism in countries that would normally benefit from the extra business.
Addressing the link
The clear link between health and poverty has made disease control a central concern for governments and international actors alike. It presents an opportunity to fight poverty through proven and effective interventions supported by research and experience. In the past decade, these efforts have led to malaria deaths being cut in half to 627,000 annually. This is incredible progress that needs to be sustained. Fortunately, world leaders realise the importance of committing to health targets and have agreed to keep a health focus in the development of the new Sustainable Development Goals, which will aim to reduce poverty by improving maternal and child health.
Content produced and managed by Malaria Consortium