The Sick Man of Asia

China's Health Crisis

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Although China has made remarkable economic progress over the past few decades, its citizens’ health has not improved as much. Since 1980, the country has achieved an average economic growth rate of ten percent and lifted 400–500 million people out of poverty. Yet Chinese official data suggest that average life expectancy in China rose by only about five years between 1981 and 2009, from roughly 68 years to 73 years. (It had increased by almost 33 years between 1949 and 1980.) In countries that had similar life expectancy levels in 1981 but had slower economic growth thereafter -- Colombia, Malaysia, Mexico, and South Korea, for example -- by 2009 life expectancy had increased by 7–14 years. According to the World Bank, even in Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore, which had much higher life expectancy figures than China in 1981, those figures rose by 7–10 years during the same period.

A look at China’s disease burden also reveals a worrisome picture. Like many less developed countries, China still battles a legion of microbial and viral threats, including HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, and rabies. For instance, more than 130 million people in China have the hepatitis B virus -- accounting for about one-third of all HBV carriers in the world. Meanwhile, chronic noncommunicable diseases, which are typical of developed countries, are becoming an even more intractable problem. According to the 2008 National Health Services Survey, conducted by China’s Ministry of Health, 61 percent of respondents who said that they had been sick within the previous two weeks had chronic diseases, compared with 39 percent ten years earlier. A 2010 study by The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that China has the largest population of diabetics in the world and that the disease is spreading at a faster rate there than in Europe and the United States. Nearly ten percent of adults aged 20 or more in China now have diabetes -- close to the rate in the United States (11 percent) and far higher than those in Canada, Germany, and other Western countries. Noncommunicable diseases, including cardiovascular disease, chronic

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