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As China Gets Richer, First World Diseases Take Hold

Students paste red ribbons on a window to mark World AIDS Day in Nanjing, China, in 2006. Although many infectious diseases have declined in the country, the number of new HIV cases nearly quadrupled between 2007 and 2011.

Has the economic boom in China been good for the Chinese people? When it comes to health, the answer, on average, is yes.

China isn't just jockeying with the U.S. for superpower status. Chinese are also starting to have the same health problems as Americans, says a study published Thursday in The Lancet.

China has managed to beat back the plagues of poverty, such as diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and malaria, which kill millions of kids each year in low-income countries.

Now the main causes of death in China are stroke, heart disease and other so-called First World health problems.

"In terms of overall health status, China is outperforming all the other rapidly developing countries and approaching the level of the U.S.," says Theo Vos, a health economist from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, who contributed to the study.

"The pace of improvement in China has been truly exemplary," Vos tells Shots. And he thinks that it could serve as a model for other developing nations.

Life expectancy in China jumped significantly over just one generation. Between 1970 and 2010, the average Chinese man tacked an extra 12.5 years on to his life. Women did even better, stretching their lives an extra 15 years on average.

The downside of this success is that the Chinese public health system must now adapt to fight a whole new set of health problems.

"By removing a lot of the causes of death in children and infectious diseases, people live longer and you're prone to get other disabling conditions," Vos says. "The Chinese authorities will have to deal with increasing numbers of disabling conditions that need to be treated in their health system."

Lung cancer and other diseases linked to tobacco use are now big problems. More than half of adult men in China smoke, which is one of the highest rates of smoking in the world.

Incidences of HIV also continue to increase. And as more and more Chinese can afford automobiles, car crashes are placing a growing burden on Chinese hospitals.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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