By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Austerity cuts in Spain could lead to the effective dismantling of large parts of its healthcare system and significantly damage the health of the population, according to a study published on Thursday.
Researchers who analyzed the situation warned that if nothing was done to reverse the trend, Spain risked spiraling health problems and could see increases in infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and the virus that causes AIDS.
As part of the analysis, interviews were conducted with 34 doctors and nurses across Catalonia in northern Spain. Many reported feeling "shocked", "numbed" and "disillusioned" about the cuts, and some expressed fears that "the cuts are going to kill people", the researchers said.
"For five years, policies to address the financial crisis have focused almost entirely on economic indicators," said Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), who co-led the study. "Our paper sheds light on the burden of human suffering that has followed from these policies."
The study published in the British medical Journal (BMJ) found that Spain's national budget cuts of almost 14 percent and regional budget cuts of up to 10 percent in health and social services in 2012 have coincided with increased demands for care, particularly from the elderly, disabled and mentally ill.
The researchers also noted increases in depression, alcohol-related disorders and suicides in Spain since the financial crisis hit and unemployment increased.
"If no corrective measures are implemented, this could worsen with the risk of increases in HIV and tuberculosis — as we have seen in Greece where healthcare services have had severe cuts — as well as the risk of a rise in drug resistance and spread of disease," said Helena Legido-Quigley, a lecturer in Global Health at LSHTM who worked with McKee.
The findings in Spain chime with other studies in Europe and North America which found budget cuts had a devastating effect on health, driving up suicides, depression and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care.
In a book published in April, researchers said around 10,000 suicides and a million cases of depression had been diagnosed during what they called the "Great Recession" and the austerity measures that have come with it across Europe and North America.
The BMJ study noted that Spain already had one of the lowest public expenditures on healthcare relative to GDP in the European Union. It said planned further cuts to a dependency fund for the elderly and disabled this year would put these vulnerable people even more at risk.
Other changes in health provision include excluding unofficial immigrants from accessing free health services and increasing payments by patients for extra treatments such as drugs, prosthetics and some ambulance trips.
In Madrid and Catalonia, regional cuts have led to a move towards privatization of hospitals, longer waiting times, cutbacks in emergency services and fewer surgical procedures, the researchers found.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Pravin Char)