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Drought disease

By Peter Curson - posted Tuesday, 14 November 2006


As Australia experiences one of the most severe and prolonged droughts in its history, a pervading sense of powerlessness and hopelessness is beginning to pervade many rural communities.

In health terms drought can be considered a chronic slow-onset disaster somewhat akin to slow-viral epidemics like HIV-AIDS, in that many of its effects are insidious, often hidden from view and may be spread out over a long time period.

In addition, the link between drought and human health is not always a direct one, but one that may operate through a complex web of interconnected linkages. Historically, the drought-famine relationship has been one of the most critical for human societies, and the historical record of drought indicates death and disease on a massive scale.

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The drought-famine in Northern China in 1876-79 for example, affected at least 100 million people and probably caused the death of at least 13 million. The droughts in the 1890s and 1910s in the US High Plains caused widespread malnutrition and starvation and probably thousands of deaths.

Quite possibly the 1895-1903 drought, one of Australia’s most severest, produced high levels of malnutrition and premature illness and death. Since then, personal resources, government intervention and other support mechanisms, have largely removed the threat of starvation, malnutrition and outbreaks of infectious disease during droughts. Now, these have been replaced by a raft of adverse psycho-social outcomes such as stress, depression and psychosomatic illness, in many cases leading to the exacerbation of chronic conditions like stroke and heart disease.

Droughts like all disasters tend to target the most vulnerable groups in our society and underscore existing health differentials in the population, exaggerating the position of those groups which normally experience the highest levels of social and economic disadvantage.

Drought also impacts on those nearer the margins of our society living on rented or heavily mortgaged properties, or perhaps export-orientated farmers who over commit financially or who make risky farming decisions.

In Australia, country people suffer higher levels of deaths from coronary heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, injury, road accidents and diabetes than do urban dwellers, and levels of family violence and alcoholism and teeth loss also appear to be much higher.

There are also reports of more illness and higher rates of hypertension and psychiatric illness in rural populations compared to urban dwellers. Most distinctive of all, is that rural areas have high suicide rates, particularly among young adult males, where the rate is at least 50 per cent higher than that prevailing in metropolitan areas.

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There is also a severe shortfall of health workers and counsellors in rural areas.

Drought undoubtedly compounds such rates, and adds another toll to the distinctive health disadvantage of living in rural Australia.

Elmer Kelton in his novel about the effects of the 1950s droughts on people in the rangelands of West Texas captures some of the effects of such events. Charlie Flagg, a long-time rancher and the novel’s hero, watches while drought kills his livestock, causes his heart attack and the suicide of his best friend. But it does not drive him from his land.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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