J. D. Heyes
December 6, 2012
As the U.S. trade deficit continues to soar, the one thing America has been successful at exporting is its fast food industry, and with it, all of the health problems it causes.
When Mexico signed on to become a participant in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the early 1990s, the country’s leaders thought they were getting unprecedented access to the vast U.S. marketplace. Goods and services would flow more freely between the two countries and Canada; no tariffs, fewer trade regulations and far less red tape.
Well, that experience in “free trade” has turned out not to be so free after all: With an explosion in the importation of American-based fast food venues has come a similar explosion in the waistlines of average Mexicans, who are now collectively more obese than any other country on the planet, except the United States. That will mean infinitely higher healthcare costs for a country that, despite a young labor force and plenty of natural resources, still struggles with crushing poverty.
“With each bite into a greasy taco and slurp of a sugary drink, Mexico hurtles toward what health experts predict will be a public health crisis from diabetes-related disease,” says a report by McClatchy Newspapers.
Diabetes rates rising past the point of treatment capabilities
Citing the most current statistics, the report says one-fifth of all Mexican women and 25 percent of men are thought to now be at risk for diabetes. Already, it is the nation’s number one killer, claiming about 70,000 lives a year – far more than drug cartel and gang violence, which is also high.
Public health officials are blaming the dramatic uptick in diabetes on changes in Mexican lifestyles. Such changes have come from a surge in powerful snack and soft drink industries as well as increasingly sedentary ways of living, as well as a genetic heritage that is susceptible to the chronic, debilitating, life-threatening illness.
The results have already begun to manifest in higher hospital admissions, “where those needing treatment for diabetes-related illness” like blindness and kidney dialysis are clamoring for help, the newspaper group reported.
“The first time we came, we had to wait 12 days for my husband to get dialysis,” Marta Remigio Jasso, who spoke on the grounds of the General Hospital of Mexico, a public unit of the Secretariat of Health, told McClatchy. “I slept under my husband’s hospital bed.”
Some 150,000 Mexicans receive kidney dialysis, but at least that many are denied treatment because they lack insurance, Dr. Abelardo Avial Curiel, a physician and expert in population studies at one of the country’s most prestigious medical centers, the Salvador Zubiran National Institute of Medical Sciences and Nutrition, said.
“When we project the increase in diabetes and the costs associated with it, the Mexican health system will be overwhelmed. It can’t be paid for. By the year 2020, it will be catastrophic. By 2030, it faces collapse,” he said.
Between 6.5 and 10 million Mexicans now have diabetes, according to public health officials. That is fewer than the 20 million diabetes sufferers in the U.S., but the number of sufferers south of the border is likely to expand exponentially, thanks to soaring obesity and a shifting demographics that could soon prove to be too great for public health systems.
“In the next four decades, the population of people 65 years and older will quadruple,” Manuel Ordorica Mellado, a demographer at the Colegio de Mexico, a public research and teaching institution, told McClatchy. “This is vertiginous growth.”
By 2050, Mexico is likely to have about 25 million elderly people, said Mellado, or the equivalent of the nation’s entire population in 1950.
“Diabetes is the primary cause of blindness in Mexico. It’s also the main reason for amputations,” added Carmen Reyes de Ortega, the executive director of the Mexican Diabetes Association, a nonprofit advocacy and educational group.
Reyes de Ortega noted that the outlook for the country is not good. “We’ll have a lot of people suffering blindness, with mobility problems and needing dialysis.”
Mexicans now consuming more soda than Americans
The Mexican lifestyle has changed dramatically in the past few decades. As urban centers became more crowded, it forced workers into long commutes. Also, concerns about public safety have kept more Mexicans cooped up at home.
For instance, workers who would go home for long lunch breaks and consume freshly prepared foods can no longer do that.
“It is practically impossible to go home to eat lunch now,” said Dr. Gabriela Ortiz, a department director at the National Center for Preventative Health and Disease Control. “We ask for food to be delivered to our office. Some employees go out to the taco stands on the corner or to the street markets.”
In addition, because of concerns about the safety of public drinking water, more Mexicans have begun to consume sugary drinks.
“Coca-Cola is a great villain, but it is not the only one,” Avila pointed out, adding that some 30 of Mexico’s 500 largest businesses produce snacks or other types of junk food, carbonated or sugary beverages.
Figures show that Mexicans now consume about 40 percent more sugary drinks per year than do Americans.