The full effects of a decline in public health spending in Europe are still not visible, public health experts say following a report showing that European public health spending is falling for the first time since the 1970s.
The report – issued jointly by the Commission and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – found that from an annual average growth rate of 4.6% between 2000 and 2009, health spending per capita in Europe fell 0.6% in 2010, the first time it has dropped since 1975.
The report also found that more half of adults in the European Union are now overweight, and 17% are obese, and this and other problems are storing up a worse harvest of health problems for the future.
It said that rates of obesity have doubled since 1990 in many European countries, and now range from 8% in Romania and Switzerland to over 25% in Hungary and the United Kingdom.
Obesity and smoking are the major risk factors for heart disease and stroke which accounted for 36% of all deaths across EU countries in 2010.
“Cutting spending on essential services is simply madness," said Monika Kosińska, secretary-general of the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA). "Not only does this hinder the resilience of populations under pressure to recover and boost a fragile economy, but it will also carry a long-term burden as people delay accessing primary care until their symptoms are intolerable, and significantly more expensive to treat.”
“It is the equivalent of physicians bleeding their patients - it weakens their ability to recover and may just kill them,” Kosińska added.
Spanish health cuts caused protests
Health spending as a share of GDP was highest in the Netherlands (12%) in 2010, the report shows, followed by France and Germany (11.6%). The share of GDP allocated to health was 9.0% on average across EU countries, down from 9.2% in 2009.
The report comes as discontent over dwindling public health budgets in Spain and elsewhere has bubbled over into protests.
Thousands of Spanish doctors, nurses and hospital staff marched through the capital Madrid on 17 November to denounce budget cuts and privatisations, the latest protest against deeply unpopular austerity measures.
Dressed in white, the protestors chanted “Public health!” and “Health is a right. We are going to fight.”
Many demonstrators in Madrid wore small “For Sale” signs on their coats, news agencies reported.
The health sector has been hard hit by the austerity policies implemented by the government of Mariano Rajoy, which is trying to cut the public deficit in the eurozone's fourth largest economy.