HEALTH AND IRELAND - Required reading for new minister

Where you live in Ireland can have a fundamental bearing on your health.

Never before has that fact of life, or death, been reflected in greater detail than in today’s major Irish Examiner supplement on the health of the nation.

Its fascinating insights into the health of the people are given on a county-by-county basis, the results of minute examination of existing statistics in relation to certain major illnesses across some 20 health categories including respiratory diseases, heart attack, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. Infant mortality rates and the level of disability among children are also scrutinised geographically. The numbers of GPs are given for every county.

In a particularly interesting statistical breakdown, reporter Catherine Shanahan has mined the data to see how people living in neighbouring counties rated their health overall. Surprisingly, given the seemingly never-ending controversy that surrounds the vexed topic of health, figures compiled by the CSO in 2011 show that nationally, 88.3% of people considered themselves to be healthy. Across most counties people were satisfied at the time their health was either ‘good’ or ‘very good’.

Obviously, since all statistics are based on samples, it is important to keep in mind the fact that they always bear a certain margin of error. Yet, it can be stated with a high degree of confidence that in some counties the results, such as, for instance, cancer, appear to be ‘better’ than in others. In the absence of definitive conclusions, it is virtually impossible to say why that is so.

This intriguing supplement shines a bright light into the hidden corners of every county, showing for example that death rates from breast cancer are highest in Waterford, while the suicide rate in Cork City outstrips anywhere else, that Limerick City has the highest infant mortality rate, and Carlow has the highest incidence of and death rates from lung cancer.

It also tells us that Cork City has the highest incidence of non-melanoma skin cancer whereas Limerick, Tipperary, Laois, Cavan, and Mayo, have the highest death rate from diseases of the circulatory system caused either by heart attack, high blood pressure or stroke.

The supplement raises tantalising questions. Why, for instance, does Longford have the highest percentage of low-birth weight babies? And Sligo the highest rate of admissions to hospital for respiratory disease? And Meath the lowest number of GPs per 100,000 population? Why are the numbers of people accessing treatment for problem alcohol use highest in Waterford?

Behind the various statistics are revealing pointers to quality of life, including deprivation levels, educational attainment, age factors, living alone, and population density. In a week when sunbeds were banned for those under 18, it shows that lifetime exposure to sun is the main cause of skin cancer. People involved in outdoor activities in some places have a higher rate than in other parts of the same county.

As he takes on his new role, this thought-provoking public service should be required reading for Health Minister Leo Varadkar, a practical guide for government campaigns on health issues like obesity, alcohol abuse, or smoking, and an effective aid in re-directing hospital resources.

Click here to see the full report


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