New Medical Concerns Threaten Latin America's Emerging Middle Class

Non-communicable and chronic diseases traditionally associated with higher-income countries have skyrocketed. Rates of childhood obesity have dramatically increased and diabetes moved into the top five causes of mortality.
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Just as our bodies adapt to the evolving world around us, the health problems in Latin America and the Caribbean regions (LAC) have evolved with changes in the economic realities. Only 20 years ago, the health conditions associated with developing countries plagued LAC as well: bacterial diarrhea was the number one cause of death in 1990, and stunting from malnutrition afflicted approximately 24 percent of children.

LAC is now a region in transition. Stunting has decreased by 45 percent and diarrheal disease dropped to the twentieth cause of death. Meanwhile, non-communicable and chronic diseases traditionally associated with higher-income countries have skyrocketed. Rates of childhood obesity have dramatically increased and diabetes moved into the top five causes of mortality.

Chronic diseases account for 68 percent of mortality in LAC and lead to billions of dollars of losses in economic production. On top of that, experts predict that deaths from heart disease, diabetes, and stroke will triple in the next two decades. In addition, cervical cancer mortality rates are seven times greater in LAC than in North America, and breast cancer is the deadliest cancer for women in the region.

This new reality is what public health officials refer to as a double-burden of disease. This means that while LAC countries are still struggling to eradicate communicable diseases commonly associated with the developing world, new public health problems are rapidly emerging, placing an additional strain on already-limited resources.

At Pro Mujer, we are experiencing these changes first-hand. A leading women's development social enterprise, Pro Mujer provides women in Latin America with vital health, microfinance and training services that are typically out of reach but essential to breaking the cycle of poverty. Our clients are primarily poor women entrepreneurs laboring in the informal sector. Today our 2,000 employees work with more than 277,000 women across five Latin American countries. The health problems of our clients track those of the region, and include obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure. These conditions disproportionately affect poor people and cause additional economic problems for cash-strapped families; yet, they are systematically under-addressed by the public health sector.

There is a silver lining to these mounting problems: many chronic diseases are entirely preventable.

The key to reducing chronic illness is behavior change. For this reason, Pro Mujer is working diligently to promote healthy behavior among our clients. While women are at our centers for their bi-weekly loan meetings, Pro Mujer's staff nurses take body mass index readings and blood pressure measurements. In addition, Pro Mujer provides clients with health counseling and education to learn about nutrition and other preventive behaviors.

To complement these basic services, Pro Mujer is in the process of launching an innovative and financially sustainable new health model. The model is unique in its success promoting preventive health services. By bundling together high impact interventions such as cervical cancer screenings and glucose tests with services like lab tests and dental care that are in high demand, clients are encouraged to utilize a whole suite of preventive services. Pro Mujer's scale and infrastructure allows us to offer this package at below-market prices while also providing access to financing mechanisms, like loans or savings, to help pay for these services in small and manageable increments.

In this way, Pro Mujer is creating sophisticated health care consumers at the base of the pyramid -- a major accomplishment for a public health initiative.

At the 2013 Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting, Pro Mujer made another great leap forward in our battle against chronic disease. We launched Healthy Connections, a new partnership with the Mayo Clinic, Sesame Workshop and Pfizer. This partnership is dedicated to promoting behavior change using creative online and mobile technology for social marketing and improving preventive care for our clients and their families by digitally connecting our clinicians to international specialists.

At Pro Mujer, we understand that as the world changes, we must change our approach to providing health care to the poor women in Latin America. These decisions have a multiplier effect: when women are healthy and empowered, entire families, communities and economies benefit.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the Clinton Global Initiative, in conjunction with the latter's 2013 meeting of CGI Latin America (Dec. 8-10 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). At the CGI Latin America meeting, international leaders from business, government and NGOs join President Bill Clinton to explore how to carry the region's social and economic progress into the future. CGI members worldwide have already made more than 250 Commitments to Action specifically designed to improve lives in Brazil and across Latin America. To read all the posts in this series, click here, and visit CGI's blog here.

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