Study finds 2008 recession linked to extra 260,000 cancer deaths globally

26 May 2016

A global research study into the effects of the 2008 recession on the health systems of more than 70 nations has found that this period of austerity was linked to 260,000 more cancer deaths.

Cancer remains one of the biggest killers globally, particularly in nations that have poor access to medical facilities generally, yet now it seems that periods of recession like the one experienced between 2008 and 2010 have a bigger impact that previously thought.

In a research paper published in The Lancet, a global study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Imperial College London and Oxford University wanted to determine what link, if any, there was between a rise in cancer deaths and growing unemployment.

Cancer data from 2bn people

While previous studies managed to find a tenuous correlation between economic changes and a rise in mortality, few had looked specifically at a rise in cancer deaths.

By analysing data from more than 70 high-and-middle-income countries around the world – representing approximately 2bn people – the research team looked at deaths related to cancers that would be typically treatable.

These would typically be cancers that have a survival rate of more than 50pc, such as breast cancer or prostate cancer, as well as ones categorised as typically untreatable, such as lung or pancreatic cancer, where survivability is typically less than 5pc.

Once they had pored through the data, the researchers found that there was a direct correlation between increased mortality and an increase in unemployment, with suggestions that lack of access to universal healthcare care may have been a factor in the growth in the number of deaths from typically treatable cancers.

Importance of universal healthcare

The team compared their findings with estimates of expected cancer deaths during the recessionary period and, from this, were able to determine that there was a link between the economic crisis and more than 260,000 excess cancer deaths among the 35 member states of the OECD alone.

Despite intense criticism from prominent figures in the US surrounding the introduction of ‘Obamacare’ – otherwise known as universal healthcare – the study also found that countries that have such systems show little evidence of a link between cancer deaths and unemployment.

In terms of limitations of the study, Attun and the team were unable to gather data from some of the largest countries in the world, like India and China, while it also had difficulty gathering data from low-income countries.

“Higher unemployment due to the economic crisis and austerity measures is associated with higher number of cancer deaths. Universal health coverage protects against these deaths,” said Rifat Atun, senior author of the study.

“That there are needless deaths is a major societal concern.”

Cancer treatment image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic