Research — 21 November 2014

An Associate Professor in psychiatric neuroscience has warned tropical countries may suffer a significant increase in disease burden from mental health problems.

His remarks come as ‘traditional’ tropical diseases decrease thanks to medical and hygienic development.

James Cook University Associate Professor Zoltan Sarnyai discussed the emerging risks in a public lecture yesterday in Mackay.

After examining results from the World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease study, Associate Professor Sarnyai said that although neglected tropical diseases such as infectious diseases, exotic parasites and deadly viruses continue to be a “huge” problem (affecting one billion people worldwide), a rise in mental health problems could be an even more threatening trend.

“In emerging economies such as Brazil, infectious diseases are decreasing due to sanitation and very basic antibiotic treatment,” Associate Professor Sarnyai said.Injured woman leaning sadly on wooden wall

“Infectious diseases come and go, but mental health problems are an ongoing, chronic illness.

“For example, having a disease common in tropical conditions such as leprosy is very problematic because in addition to the disease, the person is ostracized, rejected from society, they cannot get employment or get married.

“So this type of social isolation in combination with all these factors can lead to ongoing stress, which often leads to depression and even suicide.”

The World Health Organisation’s Global Burden of Disease measures a country’s disease burden based on years of life lost from premature death and years lived in less than full health.

With mental disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety-related disorders most commonly affecting populations in the Tropics, Associate Professor Sarnyai said there was a combination of factors that impacted the seriousness of the health burden.

While some of these problems were sociological, including population growth and reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness, the bulk of the problem seemed to be economical.

“Many tropical countries happen to be low or lower middle income countries and don’t allocate sufficient resources for mental health, especially in comparison with high income countries,” Associate Professor Sarnyai said.

“About 80 per cent of tropical countries allocate less than one per cent of their health budget towards mental health, while high income countries on average allocate over five per cent of their much larger budgets.”

“The Global Burden of Disease database has some unpublished data that indicates that tropical countries have had an increase in a burden of mental health and substance abuse disorders that exceed the increase in non-tropical countries by 20 per cent, but these results are only preliminary.”

While tropical countries are mainly impacted by mental health problems due to their low to lower middle income status, Professor Sarnyai did not rule out the potential climatic effects on mental health, including here in Queensland.

“When I moved to Australia three years ago, I did feel the difference in climate immediately,” Professor Sarnyai said.

“Many people have mentioned that during the wet season here, you can notice changes in mood and people complaining a lot more about depression-related things.

“There’s no systemic study to reference, but in Brazil they looked at the effect of the wet season in tropical areas on mental health, and they were able to demonstrate that in that climate there was a significant increase in signs of depression.”

This article first appeared on ‘Brisbane Times’ on 19 November 2014.


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