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How Wide Are Latin America’s Health Inequalities?

New research shows that the disease burden in Latin America and the Caribbean is disproportionately borne by the most disadvantaged, especially in childhood and adolescence. But the complex pattern of these disparities suggests that policymakers must address the broader social determinants of health outcomes.

BUENOS AIRES – Health is much more than a personal matter; it is essential to a society’s well-being and productivity. But achieving equitable health outcomes for all remains a challenge. This is especially true in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), a region beset by extreme and persistent inequalities.

To be sure, when it comes to its biggest health concerns, LAC is far from an outlier. Whereas three decades ago the region dealt primarily with maternal, neonatal, and communicable diseases, it is now confronting – like much of the rest of the world – a rising tide of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular conditions, cancers, diabetes, and mental-health disorders. But this shift presents unique challenges in a region where the disease burden is disproportionately borne by the most disadvantaged.

The region’s large health disparities are particularly pronounced in childhood. Infant mortality, for example, is nearly four times higher in LAC than in OECD countries. Our study found that, in Bolivia, Guatemala, Haiti, and Peru, mortality is roughly three times higher for infants whose parents completed at most a primary education compared to those whose parents completed secondary school. Moreover, in Colombia and Paraguay, infant mortality is more than five times higher for households in the lowest wealth quintile compared to those in the highest.