Health and productivity

July 14, 1993

Since 1950, advances in health care have produced more improvement in human health around the world than in all the previous years. Thanks to immunizations, basic health care, the eradication or control of major diseases and other advancements, millions of people are living longer lives and, in many cases, more productive ones. In the developing world, life expectancy has risen from 40 years to 63 years.

Not surprisingly, world population has risen dramatically, too, causing fears that the Earth will soon reach its carrying capacity. Is there a connection? Yes, but the link is a positive one. Improvements in human health and productivity in poor countries help to counteract the worrisome trends evident in rapid population growth.

Longer life expectancy produces lower fertility rates. Increases in longevity generally indicate a rising level of prosperity which, in turn, prompts smaller families. Some developing countries have found that children in smaller families can expect to stay in school longer and look forward to a better future than those who grow up in larger families.

Improving health care, therefore, fosters economic development and helps to mitigate the economic and political strains of rapid population growth, a source of dangerous tensions.

But for all the advancements since the middle of the century, there are still vast challenges ahead. The United States is not alone in facing a health care crisis. Many of the same problems plaguing this country, such as rising costs of health care and uneven access to medical services, can be seen elsewhere.

A recent report from the World Bank detailing progress in health care notes the benefits of even rudimentary care. A basic health package focusing on prenatal and delivery care, family planning, basic care for sick children and simple treatments for tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases would cost as little as $12 per person annually while reducing the burden of disease by 25 percent -- an improvement that would have a direct bearing on economic productivity.

Economic growth in developing countries leads to significant improvements in health. But the connection goes two ways: A healthy population plays an important part in creating prosperity. If the next few decades hold as much progress in human health as the past 40 years, governments must be willing to undertake reforms so that all people have access to basic health services and preventive care.

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