New and Old Diseases Straining Healthcare in Asia

Asia’s healthcare systems are straining under the weight of lifestyle ailments linked to rising affluence while confronting new and old infectious diseases like bird flu and tuberculosis.

A rapidly ageing population, expensive medical technologies and more demanding patients are adding to the burden, said experts attending a regional healthcare conference last week in Singapore.

Budgetary constraints are hobbling government spending, but allowing the private sector to lead could take medical care further beyond the poor’s reach, the experts said.

“Non-communicable diseases have become the leading cause of death in Asia,” said the Economist Intelligence Unit in a study circulated at the conference, which was organised by the EIU, a sister company to The Economist magazine.

Heart disease is either the leading or second biggest cause of death in 11 Asian economies – China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam.

Cancer is now among the top three killers in eight out of the 11 economies.

Meanwhile governments still have to deal with emerging diseases like avian flu and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and age-old ailments that are re-emerging such as malaria and TB.

Analysts said Asia’s economic transition from rural to wealthier urban life was bringing a resurgence of diseases normally associated with grinding poverty and lack of hygiene.

“Tuberculosis, malaria – they are all coming back with a vengeance… It’s quite frightening,” said Phua Kai Hong, an associate professor on health policy and management at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“No country is an island and diseases respect no boundaries,” he said.

In addition, healthcare systems must cater to the needs of Asia’s fast-greying population.

Phua said Asian governments must learn to manage their healthcare systems better. This includes balancing the role of the government and private sector so that treatment remains affordable, he and other experts said.

Reforms should also ensure that healthcare programmes deal not only with vaccination and sanitation issues but also educate people about their diets, lifestyles and exercise habits.

China now has a diabetes “epidemic” as obesity rates rise on the back of growing affluence, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine said last week, with one in 10 Chinese adults now afflicted.

The hard-fought passage of US President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms has put the spotlight on the need for health insurance, but Phua said Asian governments should not view government insurance as a “magic bullet.”

State subsidies for health insurance will strain budgets unless they cover the “risks of very low probability but high-cost catastrophic illnesses” and long-term care, he told reporters at the conference.

“Unfortunately, many governments look upon insurance to solve all the problems. They cover everything under the sun so there’s not enough (money).”

Healthcare spending as a percentage of gross domestic product in the 11 Asian economies ranged between 3.3 and 6.3 percent for 2010, compared with 16 percent in the United States and 10.3 percent in Western Europe, the EIU said.

Arthur Higgins, chairman of the executive committee at pharmaceutical giant Bayer Healthcare, said Asia can learn from the mistakes of Europe and the United States.

The region should put more emphasis on disease prevention – an area in which he said the West has “failed miserably.”

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