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(The Doctor, by Luke Fidas, 1891)

Diseases From The 1800s Are Making a Disturbing Comeback in The UK

MIKE MCRAE
10 FEB 2019

Nothing sums up images of contagion and squalor in the shadows of excess like the works of renowned British author Charles Dickens.

Following the publishing of a UK health report, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has argued claims of "Dickensian diseases on the rise in Tory Britain" demand prompt action. More than a historical reference, such 'Dickensian' statistics could indeed reflect the worst of times amid the best of times.

 

Data released by the UK National Health Service last year on patient admissions revealed an alarming rise in various nutritional and communicable diseases in the past decade.

The infectious disease known as scarlet fever famously reached pandemic proportions in the 19th century, striking down the young and the weak across the Western world.

Recent years have seen a return of the bacterial infection, reaching numbers not seen since the 1960s, with admissions for a primary diagnosis more than doubling between 2010/11 and 2017/18, from 429 to more than 1,300.

Just as shocking was the 59 percent rise in whooping cough, a disease that was all but wiped out more than half a century ago by comprehensive immunisation programs.

At the same time, entries for gout jumped by just over a third – a disease associated with "ease and comfort" in Victorian London, now more likely to be linked with deprivation and lack of work.

The report didn't comment on potential factors influencing the numbers, but many – including members of the opposing political party – are laying the blame squarely at the feet of government cost-cutting.

 

"The damning truth is austerity is making our society sicker," Ashworth said in a statement.   

"Since 2010, while food banks scatter across the land, admission[s] to hospital for malnutrition have increased by 54 percent."

Royal College of Nursing professional lead for public health, Helen Donovan, backs up the criticisms.

"The government should accept its responsibility for failing the most vulnerable in our society and commit to investing properly in vital public health services," Donovan told The Guardian.

"There are many reasons behind this, but one thing that cannot be ignored is the effect of sustained cuts to local authority public health budgets, which have caused the services that screen, prevent and protect, against illness and promote good hygiene to be scaled back."

According to an analysis carried out by the independent health charity King's Fund, successive cuts to health budgets – especially in fields of sexual health and addiction – could be expected to hit roughly £800 million (over US$1 billion) by 2021.

As impressive as those saving gains might look now, they could easily be swallowed as rising rates of illness place a greater burden on society.

 

In theory, a universal healthcare system such as the NHS favours no particular class or demographic. Yet, in practice, even the most general of cuts affect some more than others.

Austerity measures and associated policies are already well understood to adversely affect mental health, especially among the marginalised members of society, widening inequality and placing additional strain on the UK healthcare system.

With signs of growth in other forms of preventable illness, it's clear future governments will have their work cut out for them, turning around what appears to be an emerging health crisis.

The government defends their record, pointing out improved rates of cancer survival and marked reductions in smoking.

"We're committed to giving everyone five extra years of healthy, independent life by 2035 and reducing the gap between the rich and poor," said a spokesperson from the Department of Health and Social Care.

Medical science has come a long way in the past two centuries. It's a shame that Dickens would find it hard to see how far we've come.