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Economic Growth Affected by Parasitic, Insect-Spread Disease

Women at a health clinic in Haiti (State.gov)

Women at a health clinic in Haiti (State.gov)

Researchers in the U.S. and France built a mathematical model to estimate the impact of health on economic data that indicates infectious diseases spread by insects, called vector-borne diseases, and parasites found in tropical regions affect economic development in those countries. Their analysis is published online in the journal PLoS Biology.

The team led by Harvard University public health economist Matthew Bonds, with Andrew Dobson of Princeton University, and Donald C. Keenan of Université de Cergy-Pontoise in France, examined the role of health in economic growth, focusing on the impact of diseases that occur independently of the workings of traditional economic institutions. Their focus narrowed to the high occurrence of vector-borne diseases and parasites occurring in the same tropical regions marked by extreme poverty, where more than one-sixth of the world is roughly as poor today as their ancestors were hundreds of years ago.

Measuring the impact of health issues on economic factors is a challenge because of the simultaneous occurrence of economic and heath variables that affect each other. To better estimate the impact of health variables on economic growth, Bonds and colleagues used simultaneous equation models, an econometric technique that makes it possible to analyze the interactions of multiple calculations at the same time. Their analysis looked particularly at estimating the effects of disease and income on each other while controlling for other factors.

The models show vector-borne and parasitic diseases have a systematic effect on economic development, as seen in current levels of per capita income. The location of a country in the tropics, say the authors, means it endures a higher rate of these diseases, and reducing the burden of those diseases to the levels found in temperate-climate countries could more than double their per capita income. The findings also confirm the roles of institutional quality, primary energy production, and landlocked status (a negative influence) on per capita income.

The authors examined ecological variables, in particular biodiversity, where mosquitoes and ticks that spread infectious disease, as well as as parasites, are part of a larger ecosystem of natural predators, competitors, and other host species. After controlling for income, geography, and related factors, the team found indications that greater biodiversity can lower the burden of vector-borne and parasitic diseases on a society.

Current threats to biodiversity, say Bonds, Dobson, and Keenan, pose challenges for policy-makers. Since health conditions can affect the economic growth potential of countries, then governments need to consider those factors that affect those health conditions. Well-functioning and diverse ecosystems can serve public health interests, the authors note. And their study offers tools to quantify those effects in terms of income.

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