Fatal traffic accidents, adolescent pregnancies, suicides and diarrhea afflicting the elderly are among Costa Rica’s biggest health challenges, according to an annual report released by the Health Ministry.
“Sometimes we present this as health data. It’s actually sickness data,” said Health Minister María Luisa Avila. “We still face challenges.” Among the grim statistics:
Nearly 20% of babies were born to adolescent mothers in 2006, up from 13.8% the previous year.
Some 687 people died in traffic accidents, a 10.5% increase from 2004.
Suicides have increased 9% since 2004.
People over 75 are still dying of diarrhea, which can usually be prevented or treated.
Rates of death by heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases have leveled out after decreasing between 2001 and 2003. The culprits include poor eating habits, inadequate exercise and smoking, Avila said. Diseases associated with the circulatory system are the biggest killer here, followed by cancer.
Adolescents are getting pregnant at high rates partly because of poor sexual health education, Avila said. The Roman Catholic Church and some parents disapprove when young teens learn about contraceptive use.
“The adolescent…is abandoned. She is like in limbo,” Avila said.
Suicide, fueled by depression, is increasing not just in Costa Rica, but across the globe, said Roberto del Aguila, an epidemiology consultant for the Pan American Health Organization, which helped produce the report.
Traffic accidents caused 4% of total deaths in 2006, Avila said. Current traffic laws are 15 years old, and lawmakers are making no progress on a bill to increase penalties for traffic violations and drunken driving.
Demographic changes also challenge the health system. The population once represented a pyramid, with numbers dropping as people aged. But as Costa Ricans have fewer babies and live longer, the number of kids under 5 is decreasing while the number of people over 75 is increasing, Aguila said.
This trend is happening throughout the Americas, but it is most pronounced in Costa Rica, the United States, Canada, Chile and Cuba, which have comparatively high education levels and socioeconomic development, Aguila said.
“One of our future challenges will be caring for the elderly,” Avila said.
Just 59 people died from diarrhea in 2006, a decrease from 2004, but more than half of them were 75 years old or over. Avila said either these elders were improperly diagnosed, or they were immobile and no one brought them liquids.