What Is the Connection between Poverty and Disease?

Mary McMahon

Global research on poverty and disease shows clear connections between low income and preventable or easily treatable disease. Groups like the World Health Organization (WHO) look at conditions known as “diseases of poverty” because they are seen primarily in low income populations and addressing poverty can alleviate some of these conditions. In addition to being an issue in developing nations, poverty and disease can also intersect in low income communities in the developed world. For example, the “diabetes belt” of the US South where the incidence of this disease is high also mimics income distribution, showing how poverty can increase the risk of diabetes.

Impoverished children often don't receive the nutrition they need to remain healthy.
Impoverished children often don't receive the nutrition they need to remain healthy.

There are several ways in which poverty and disease intersect with each other. One is that poverty can contribute to poor sanitation, which makes it possible for diseases to spread more readily within a community. Areas without adequate supplies of fresh water, safe areas to use the bathroom, and clean sources of food can experience a higher incidence of preventable diseases like diarrhea and parasitic infections. Poor sanitation can also contribute to the evolution of new generations of disease that can be difficult to treat.

The poor sanitation found in slums can breed disease.
The poor sanitation found in slums can breed disease.

Malnutrition is also a disease of poverty, associated with the inability to access enough food to survive. Vaccine preventable diseases like polio and pertussis are a concern in low-income communities where residents cannot access care. Likewise, conditions that can be managed with medication and treatment, like tuberculosis and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are worse in low income communities. In all of these instances, there is a clear link between poverty and disease, where access to prevention and treatment is limited by income.

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Lack of running water for proper hand washing spreads disease in impoverished areas.
Lack of running water for proper hand washing spreads disease in impoverished areas.

Those in communities where income is low tend to have lower educational achievements. People may not graduate from school and fewer individuals go on to college and university. Lower education levels can contribute to the spread of disease, as people may not understand how to prevent or treat diseases in their communities. Public health outreach campaigns show that simple interventions like nutritional education can have a profound impact on impoverished communities.

Impoverished areas that don't have clean drinking water tend to have higher incidences of disease.
Impoverished areas that don't have clean drinking water tend to have higher incidences of disease.

An understanding of the connection between poverty and disease has existed for centuries. In the Victorian era, for example, many social workers campaigned in impoverished areas of cities like London, showing how poor sanitation caused by poverty contributed to the outbreak of disease. This continues to be a topic of research in communities worldwide as organizations work on improving access to health care.

Lower education levels can contribute to the spread of disease.
Lower education levels can contribute to the spread of disease.
Many children in impoverished communities have no access to vaccines for preventable diseases like polio and whooping cough.
Many children in impoverished communities have no access to vaccines for preventable diseases like polio and whooping cough.

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