Health Disparity in Latin America


Health in Latin America can be broken into two sections, viz. healthcare for the indigenous people and for the immigrants. The indigenous are prone to diseases due to poverty and poor living standards. Latin America is one of the regions in the world where plants are used for medicinal purposes (Montenegro and Stephens 1866). Research into the medicinal value of certain plants used by the indigenous people is ongoing to establish their medical usefulness. This paper analyzes the nature of healthcare in Latin America and some of the challenges that countries in the region face in their attempt to ensure that every citizen has access to quality health care.

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Indigenous health

The indigenous groups in Latin America live in isolated, unhealthy, and hazardous areas (Weller, Baer, Garcia, and Rocha 406). Most health issues among the indigenous population are attributed to the hazardous environment in which they live in. Initially, health challenges were connected with limited access to the basic needs such as food, shelter, and clean water. The aforementioned risk factors were evident before the arrival of the European immigrants who introduced new types of diseases in the region (Montenegro and Stephens 1862). Research indicates that the mortality rate associated with the indigenous populations is higher as compared to that of immigrants (Montenegro and Stephens 1861). Child mortality rates are highest among the indigenous groups according to existing studies on the issue.

Research also indicates that the immigrants introduced certain diseases, which cause deaths among children of the indigenous communities. A research carried by the pan American health organization in 1994 indicated an infant mortality rate of 22 per 1000 people amongst the non-indigenous people; however, the figure was high for the indigenous people as it was 83 per 1000 infants (Weller et al. 418).

Diseases of acculturation

The indigenous people have abandoned their culture in the quest to fit in the new foreign culture, thus leading to the development of new diseases linked to acculturation (Weller et al. 419). The diseases include diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. The indigenous populations living in urban areas are highly vulnerable to these western diseases. The diseases are associated with change in diet and consumption of commercial liquor that is evident among the indigenous population.

Religion and Healing

Religion and healing are two inseparable aspects among the indigenous groups in Latin America. The indigenous population believes that certain persons, which are known as shamans, have the ability to communicate directly with the spirits, and thus they offer solutions to certain types of diseases (Soto-Ramirez 465). The indigenous groups hold certain special healing ceremonies, which are presided over by the shamans. The events are characterized by singing and dancing meant to appease the spirits in order to heal the sick. During the ceremony, the shamans are possessed with spirits and their souls allegedly depart from the body to the spiritual world to cause the healing (Montenegro and Stephens 1860).

During the healing process, the shamans act erratically coupled with making uncontrollable movements to signify possession by the spirits. The ceremony is characterized by the use of mind and body altering substances such as tobacco, hallucinogens, and alcoholic drinks (Weller et al. 416).

However, hallucinogen is the most common of all the substances in such rituals. The sick individuals consume Ayahuasca, which is a type of hallucinogen, in large amounts to heal certain type of illnesses that affect the indigenous population. The substance in conjunction with the spirits’ intervention is known to heal two types of illnesses, viz. natural diseases and illnesses caused by the jealous in society (Soto-Ramirez 465).

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Although HIV/AIDS figures are slightly lower in Latin America than in sub-Saharan African countries, the disease is still prevalent in the region (Soto-Ramirez 465). Statistics indicate that about 2 million people live with the disease in Latin America. It is estimated that the figure could reach 3.5 million by the year 2015 (Weller et al. 416). The indigenous groups believe that all diseases are curable through cultural means. A section of people in Latin America does not recognize HIV/AIDS as a viral disease, but rather they take it as a moral condition, which can be cured through spiritual interventions (Soto-Ramirez 465).

These beliefs together with the stigma associated with the disease are the key obstacles to the control and treatment of the condition. The disease is highly prevalent amongst the commercial sex workers, homosexuals, and drug users. Unfortunately, more efforts are directed to the treatment of the disease as compared to prevention, which makes it hard to fight the disease (Soto-Ramirez 465).

Insufficient funds are allocated to the prevention of the ailment and most governments in the region only focus on providing subsidized drugs for the affected. In addition, the region experiences a shortage in physicians to deal with the deadly disease. Moreover, physicians do not conduct regular monitoring of the response to the treatment offered. Tests to determine the treatment progress should be done every 3-4 months (Soto-Ramirez 465). The situation is different in most Latin American countries and such tests are done after more than 6 months (Soto-Ramirez 465). Statistics show that most people in Latin America do not seek treatment until the disease becomes severe, thus increasing the mortality rates of the affected.

Folk illnesses

Folk illnesses are non-biomedical ailments, which are only recognizable within certain cultures. In Latin America, Susto, Mal de Ojo, and Nervios are the main folk illnesses amongst the indigenous population (Weller et al. 410). The ailments are attributed to cultural conventions and they are believed to be controlled by supernatural powers. The diseases are distinguished by their symptoms. Susto is closely linked to stress and anxiety and it affects people of all ages, while Mal de Ojo affects kids only. Susto presents itself in the form of diarrhea, muscle weakness, loss of appetite, and nausea (Weller et al. 413). On the other hand, Mal de Ojo only affects children and it is characterized by high fever and restlessness of the affected children. The indigenous groups believe that Mal de Ojo comes from extreme envy or jealousy. There is a belief that keeping a child away from the gaze of the jealous people in society can go a long way in preventing the disease. The three diseases are said to have a common cultural cure.

Drugs and their medicinal value

Drug abuse is a common phenomenon across Latin America and especially in Jamaica. The most abused drugs in the region are marijuana and coca (Montenegro and Stephens 1865). Marijuana is grown and sold freely in Jamaica and it is a source of income for most people in the region. The herb is believed to have some medicinal value, which explains why most indigenous communities abuse it.

Expressive and healthy body

Anthropologists today are trying to analyze the various aspects of the human body. The topic is a complicated since the civilized and the non-civilized groups view the body from different perspectives. For instance, some of the indigenous people like the Aymara take their bodies to signify a big mountain (Soto-Ramirez 465). Their view of different diseases is different from the views exhibited by others since they believe that diseases are the consequences of failure to observe certain cultural norms (Montenegro and Stephens 1860). They believe that diseases can only be eradicated through respecting the culture.

Some beliefs exhibited by the Latin Americans are retrogressive and thus they hinder the governments’ efforts to ensure quality health care for all. For example, the Jamaicans attribute overweight to generosity and thus they hold that the overweight are healthier as compared to the slim-bodied (Weller et al. 406). Others view overweight as a sign of wealth. These beliefs are misplaced since overweight is the cause of many health issues. Gender is also an important factor when considering the body image. In Jamaica, a woman’s body is viewed as porous, thus making it necessary for women to clean their bodies regularly.

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Latin America is one of the regions that face the problem of inequality in healthcare provision and accessibility. The majority of the population in the region lives in poverty, and thus they can rarely access food and clean water. The mortality rate is reported to be high among the indigenous populations due to this inequality. The indigenous populations have beliefs that stand out as the major setbacks to the attainment of a healthy generation. Initially, the indigenous people mostly suffered from diseases attributed to malnutrition and poor living conditions. However, with the arrival of the Europeans, lifestyle diseases such as diabetes and obesity were introduced.

Works Cited

Montenegro, Raul, and Carolyn Stephens. “Indigenous health in Latin America and the Caribbean.” The Lancet 367.9525 (2006): 1859-1869. Print.

Soto-Ramirez, Luis. “HIV/AIDS in Latin America.” Science 321.5888 (2008): 465-465. Print.

Weller, Susan, Roberta Baer, Javier Garcia, Ana Rocha. “Susto and nervios: expressions for stress and depression.” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 32.3 (2008): 406-420. Print.

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