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Health Inequality: A Challenge for Rich and Poor Countries Alike

Researchers from Sheffield and Bristol have found that the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest quintiles in the United Kingdom is wider now than it was during the Great Depression. Despite an increase over time in average life expectancy, the study, published in the British Medical Journal, highlights health inequalities in Britain.

The study examined mortality data from government sources. The findings confirm that although the inequality gap narrowed until the 1970s, it widened in the last decades.

Professor Sir Michael Marmot, a health inequalities expert, told the BBC that despite improvements in the living standards of the poor, “health did not catch up on average, because of persisting social and economic inequalities.”

Marmot had previously led a report in February that demonstrated that people in England’s poorest areas lived an average of seven years less than people living in the richest areas. The study also found that a higher minimum wage to enjoy adequate standard of living would allow for a more health life.

Narrowing the health inequality gap has been a challenge even for the world's richest countries. Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirms the right of everyone “to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical health.” States have a duty to ensure that health facilities, goods and services are accessible to all, especially the most vulnerable or marginalized sections of the population, without discrimination.  Unfortunately, however, the poor are often the most excluded from adequate access to health care.

A 2009 Working Paper by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that, in almost all OECD countries and in different health systems, deeply entrenched inequalities in health status persist depending on socioeconomic status. Disparities are evident between rich and poor, not only in their enjoyment of good health, but in their access to and use of health care services as well.

CESR’s latest fac tsheet about the United States found that poor human rights outcomes, including huge disparities in health, were related to extreme income inequalities. The United States has the widest income disparity of any OECD country, and is also one of the few OECD countries without a universal public health insurance program. Many Americans are without any health coverage at all. Low public expenditure further hinders the fulfillment of the right to health.  

Posted by Maria Jose Eva and Victoria Wisniewski Otero on July 28th, 2010
Posted in Blog

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