'Dickensian' diseases on the rise under Tory-led governments: From scarlet fever to tuberculosis to malnutrition

'The damning truth is austerity is making our society sicker, it means the poor die younger,' says shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth

Alex Matthews-King
Health Correspondent
Saturday 02 February 2019 14:01
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Scarlet fever, whooping cough and a host of diseases more familiar to the characters of a Dickens novel than your average millennial have surged more than 52 per cent under Tory governments since 2010.

Victorian-era conditions are causing more than 3,000 additional hospital admissions a year, with cases of scarlet fever, a potentially fatal childhood illness, trebling in that time.

The Labour Party, which compiled the research verified by the independent House of Commons Library, said a decade of Tory-led austerity was behind health inequalities “blighting the land”.

Since 2010 funding for public health programmes that monitor infectious disease and target obesity have been slashed, while socioeconomic inequality – a major driver of poor health – has risen.

Labour says this is impacting early years diseases at a time when UK infant mortality rates – already significantly above comparable European countries – have risen for the first time since 2011.

Public health officials warned last year that cases of scarlet fever, a bacterial infection that causes a swollen tongue and a characteristic pink rash on the chest and stomach, had hit a 50-year high – but the cause is unknown.

There were 429 patients admitted with scarlet fever in 2010/11, rising to 1,321 in 2017/18, while whooping cough – virtually eradicated by vaccination programmes in the 1950s – has risen 59 per cent with nearly 300 cases last year.

The number of patients admitted with a diagnosis of malnutrition is rising – up 54 per cent to 819 cases last year.

At the same time, gout – a type of arthritis linked to rich food, alcohol and being overweight – has jumped from 4,935 hospital admissions in 2010/11 to 6,824 in 2017/18.

Labour has pledged a child health strategy to tackle infant mortality and on Saturday said a Labour government would commit to bringing life expectancy, and years lived in good health, in line with international peers by 2030.

“The damning truth is austerity is making our society sicker, it means the poor die younger,” said Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth.

“Dickensian diseases are on the rise in Tory Britain today,” he added, saying that even NHS bosses recognise that socioeconomic inequality is costing £4bn a year.

The Independent reported this week that Labour had pledged to end the “grossly irresponsible” use of cartoon mascots like Tony the Tiger in promoting high-sugar cereals to children.

“If that means government stepping in and standing up to big commercial interests, so be it,” Mr Ashworth added.

Pregnant mothers are offered the whooping cough vaccine, but a rising tide of anti-vaxxer sentiment, being stoked on social media, has been used to explain the rise in nearly eradicated diseases.

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A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said that local councils are responsible for determining how they spend budgets on priorities like social care and public health.

“We’re committed to giving everyone five extra years of healthy, independent life by 2035 and reducing the gap between the rich and poor,” they added. “We’ve already made progress, with cancer survival at a record high and smoking rates at an all-time low.

“We’re committed to ensuring everyone gets the same great healthcare no matter where they live, which is why our Long Term Plan for the NHS puts tackling health inequalities at its heart.”

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