Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Life Expectancy Way Up Since Two Centuries Ago

Smallpox and syphilis were the leading causes of death in Chile in 1810 and 1910, respectively, according to a recent study comparing living and health conditions in the country throughout the centuries.

The study, conducted by Universidad Catolica’s Department of Public Health, aims to show the changing ailments present in the lives of Chileans since the founding of the republic nearly 200 years ago.

Smallpox, the black plague, cholera and respiratory conditions like the flu and tuberculosis were the major maladies present in 1810, contributing to an average life expectancy of 27 years and an infant mortality rate of 40 percent.

Many of these problems were exacerbated by the undervaluing of medicine as a profession, says Dr. Jorge Jiménez de la Jara, a former health minister and researcher of infectious diseases at the university.

Though the smallpox vaccine first became available in Chile in October 1805, vaccinations remained low, as little as 4.4 percent by 1875, primarily among the rich. Most elected to treat the disease with homeopathic remedies such as herbs, ointments, warm baths, and potions with the blood or urine of animals.

Many of these conditions remained risk factors in the later 19th Century, as the country’s population ballooned, from 35,000 in 1810 to more than 3 million in 1910. Poor sewage systems, squalor and crowded living conditions, with an average of six children per family, led to a life expectancy of 29 years for women and 33 for men, as well as an infant mortality rate of 30 percent.

Syphilis was the primary cause of death for Chileans in the early 20th Century, affecting as much as 40 percent of the population. Other common maladies included dysentery, typhus and cholera. Respiratory conditions – particularly tuberculosis and pneumonia –plagued the poorest in the country as Chile became more urbanized and many moved into urban slum areas.

Although sewer systems and better hygiene infrastructure took off around this time, many of the problems persisted, including a 1901 outbreak of typhus that nearly wiped out several gypsy camps and led to the closure of many schools.

In 1924 the Ministry of Hygiene, Social Security and Welfare was created (now called the Health Ministry), which built hospitals and promoted safer living conditions, including having doctors and midwives present at births. This helped lower the infant mortality rate significantly, down to this year’s projected mortality rate of 7.3 per 1,000 live births.

Today, Chileans suffer primarily from heart disease and cancer, 23 percent and 13 percent of all deaths, respectively, up from 15 percent combined in 1910. Life expectancy has also skyrocketed, up to 76.1 years for men and 82.2 years for women.


By Daniel Zarchy (

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