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Obesity Threatens Health Coverage in Mexico, Official Says

Don Finley - San Antonio Express-News
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September 27, 2012

The United States may have Obamacare, but Mexico has already achieved something close to universal health coverage with Seguro Popular, a program for the roughly half its citizens who lacked insurance.

However, obesity and diabetes are threatening that safety net program, a high-ranking Mexican health official said here Wednesday. About 70 percent of Mexican adults are overweight.

“If we don't avoid this pandemic, our system will collapse,” said Dr. Eduardo Navarrete, senior adviser to Mexico's health secretary. “We don't have enough money to attend to the growing population that's developing kidney disease, metabolic problems and all the diseases related to diabetes.”

Navarrete, in San Antonio to speak to the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said in an interview that Mexico's changing diet is largely to blame.

“Mexico not too many years ago was a rural country, but we have adopted the modern style of life. That means fast food; people don't cook at home usually,” Navarrete said. “They abandoned the traditional Mexican foods like beans and tortillas. This is part of the problem.”

Mexico's health system has largely been a patchwork of private and public insurance tied to employment. Seguro Popular was launched by the government in 2003 to cover everyone who wasn't in one of those other programs, and this year has come close to reaching that goal.

More than 52 million Mexicans have been enrolled, at a cost to federal and state governments of roughly $200 per person annually. The United States spends $7,500 per person yearly — the most of any nation on earth.

Not everything is covered — the cost of dialysis, for example, is too high. And some rural areas lack clinics operated by the program.

Still, a study published last month in the journal the Lancet by Harvard researchers and the current minister of health, economist Salomón Chertorivski, described Seguro Popular as a success and a possible model for other countries.

In the nine years since it began, maternal care increased 18 percent to now cover more than 81 percent of women, treatment of respiratory infections in children under 5 increased almost 6 percent and cervical cancer screening in non-elderly women grew by more than 7 percent.

But Navarrete said the fear is that diabetes and other chronic diseases fueled by lifestyle will be catastrophic because of the potential costs. The Mexican government is now pushing prevention and primary care to head off disease, and even banning soft drinks in schools.

“We need to tackle this pandemic with preventive measures,” he said. “It's the only medicine and the only resource we have today to avoid this problem.”

Dr. Ralph DeFronzo, director of the diabetes division at the University of Texas Health Science Center, told the audience that the high cost of the newest and most effective diabetes medicines was causing many of the poor and uninsured in this country to turn instead to inexpensive generics that don't prevent complications such as kidney disease and blindness as well.

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