Money, Nature, and Disease [Research]

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1. Why should you care?

When you think of the word poverty, what comes to mind? Do you think of financial problems, a lack of food, and/or poor living conditions? Perhaps even an image of a certain location comes to mind… Maybe one that is farther than it is near to you.

All of these are acceptable thoughts that are also commonly followed by the overarching notion that poverty arises from a general lack of money. And generally speaking, where there is a lack of money there is also a lack of economic growth resulting in what is described as the poverty trap.

And while this is an extremely generalized idea of poverty, did it ever cross your mind that economic growth could be related to the microscopic pathogens that create disease?

But before we get ahead of ourselves, take a look at the study described below to get a better understanding of how getting sick can influence an areas economic growth.

  1. Why was this study carried out?

This study was published in order to describe an alternative method to understanding and fixing the issue of poverty that currently impacts over one billion people. Additionally, the authors identified two common characteristics of extremely impoverished countries:

  1. They depend on their natural primary resources as their main source of money generation (crops, soils, animals etc.).
  2. They all have high rates of mortality due to infectious diseases and parasites.

Realizing these two issues, the problem seems to become one of environmental issues versus strictly government control or job creation. Because the creation and spread of disease is impacted by environmental conditions (such as temperature, animal populations, invasive species, and human-to-human contact among many others), it is crucial to consider how our planet is responding to our global actions – and what this in turn means for us. And while all these factors are interconnected in feedback loops, if the role of disease is not understood, a piece of understanding the poverty puzzle will remain missing.

  1. How was the study carried out?

The researchers of this study applied new thinking to commonly used poverty reducing economic models to describe how the transmission of diseases can encourage the poverty trap. They then added a new layer of “health status” to the common description of “human capital”, which has otherwise implied the workforce and education levels of a population. (Specifically, they used the Coupled Disease-Economic Growth Model to describe the relationship between disease and poverty.)

  1. What were the results of the study?

Degrading human capital, (which includes the health status of an area) can reduce economic productivity.

Changing environmental conditions in an area that is already reliant on their natural resources can also increase disease transmission rates. This results in increased opportunities for the continued spread of new pathogens and bacteria in the poverty stricken area. The ability to continue working and generating income from natural resources is then degraded as sickness prevents populations from working. This reduces the already low available workforce, further reducing the ability to efficiently generate income within an area.

Furthermore, in areas where children and young adults are continually becoming sick, the future of an already poor area continues to be jeopardized, as the ability to generate income remains low. This loss in the generation of income can radiate into surrounding areas by negatively impacting other potentially healthy individuals who rely on the economy to maintain their health. Once financial needs are not met, susceptibility to disease can increase due to reduced opportunity to spend money on healthcare, maintain healthy living conditions, and consume the right amount of nutrients. This opens the door for disease to continue its spread while negatively impacting the health status, the human capital, and the overall poverty level of an area. And if human capital continues to decrease as populations become sick and experience higher mortality rates, the ability to escape the poverty trap also decreases.

This suggests that an alternative way to combat poverty could begin at the healthcare level – whether through the creation of community-based health programs, local facilities, or through hospitals. Providing a poverty-stricken area with the ability to recover from disease and thus prevent the disease from spreading can play a role in combating the poverty trap.

Overall results suggest that in addition to the workforce, job creation, and education levels of an area – the health status of a population should equally be considered. However, considering health status requires an understanding of the issues that impact health, which are often environmentally related. And while the world’s poorest nations are often dependent on their environmental resources, those same natural resources can simultaneously prevent them from escaping the associated poverty gap.

This implies that governments and people like you, must think about issues such as poverty from a bigger picture. And realize that what we do within our part of the world does impact what happens around the globe. And if something as small as littering (for example) doesn’t bug you, consider the overall environmental impact it will have. And that those same actions might be preventing someone else from becoming healthy enough to provide food for their family in another part of their world as the overall global environment continues to change.

  1. Want to know more details?

What do you think? Any questions? Please send them my way in the comment box below and I will do my best to find out the answers for you or to just respond back.

Also, check out the original article, Poverty, Disease, and the Ecology of Complex Systems if you would like to view a more detailed version of the information summarized in sections 2-4 above.

Authors: Calistus Ngonghala, Mateusz Plucinski, Megan Murray, Paul Farmer, Christopher Barrett, Donald Keenan, Matthew Bonds

Published: April 2014 by PLOS Biology

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