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As China Prospers, New Health Concerns Emerge

June 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Ray Suarez wraps up his reporting trip to China on global health issues with a discussion about the health challenges facing the country's growing middle class.
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JIM LEHRER: Obesity, of course, is not just an American problem. China, the world’s rising superpower, is dealing with the rise of weight as well.

Ray Suarez reported on it this week from China for our Global Health Unit.

Ray, what — did you come away with an impression of the state of the population’s health in China?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, I’m not a doctor, and I don’t even play one on TV.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

RAY SUAREZ: But you can see that people are better fed than they were at an earlier time in Chinese history. It was common to see adults who were of larger stature than their own parents who they accompanied on the street, and had children who looked like they were on their way to be — being larger than they are.

China gets a better-than-average diet, better than the one set by the U.N. as the base point for being properly nourished. So, you’re watching a country that’s getting richer and has the chance of getting healthier at the same time.

JIM LEHRER: You did — one of your pieces, of course, was about smoking. What about — has there been any connection between the rise in smoking or the prevalence of smoking and cancer?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, yes.

Chinese smoke more than they did 20 and 30 years ago. They have more money to smoke. And smoking products are more available. About a million people die of smoking-related disease in China now. And public health officials are looking for that doubling and tripling in the decades to come, and they’re — they’re pretty worried about it.

JIM LEHRER: What about heart disease?

RAY SUAREZ: Heart disease, the diseases of affluent, more affluent and industrialized societies.

So, in urban China, you’re seeing more lung, circulatory system, and heart disease, because there are very heavily polluted environments in those places. And you’re starting to see — in more urban, more affluent, more automobile-dependent China, you’re going to see a growth in those diseases.

JIM LEHRER: But you reported — or you made a comment in one of your stories that the health care system is not growing with the need, as other things are, right?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this reporting trip came as China is in the midst of a massive transformation, from a basically government-provided system, with tremendous gaps in availability of care between urban and rural, and something that looks more like a privatized system.

However, those gaps between urban and rural are still there, terrible, terrible access to care as China sets up a new rural health care system. But the demand so heavily outstrips the supply in the urban areas that people line up for hours before hospitals even open.

There are no clinics. There are no private doctors. There aren’t enough doctors in China. So, when those places open in the morning, they have to handle — and we were there one day to see this — a rush of thousands of people through the front door of a health facility, and overburdened triage personnel trying to figure out; OK, you go here. You go there. You, we will take care of right now.

JIM LEHRER: And your feeling was, it’s going to get worse before it gets better?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the Chinese government has committed itself to really rapidly raising the spending per person in China on health care. But, right now, it’s a fraction of what’s spent in wealthy industrial societies.

JIM LEHRER: More generally, Ray, what — what was your impression of the — a lot of talk — you mentioned it, of course, in your pieces as well — the — kind of the energy, the economic energy, the lifestyle energy?

Give us a feel for that. And compare it with prior times. And what do you expect to happen?

RAY SUAREZ: It is jaw-dropping to be in a place where everything is going to be new. Everywhere you go, there’s new stuff, new highways, new rail lines, new train stations, new bus barns, new office high-rise buildings, and clusters of apartment buildings that would be a showpiece, just a remarkable feat of building in a city anywhere else in the world, but right behind that one that you’re looking at is another one and then another one and then another one, sometimes, clusters of 30 and 40 20-story apartment buildings.

The scale, the numbers are — can be bewildering, really, because everything is a superlative in a country of 1.3 billion people that’s getting rich fast.

JIM LEHRER: And it is all superlatives?

RAY SUAREZ: Well, no. I mean, obviously, these — these — all of this has an underside. All of it has a dark side.

Lots of people are being relocated, not necessarily with their informed consent. They’re just being told to clear out. A lot of neighborhood are being torn down, a lot…

JIM LEHRER: But to build these new — new everythings?

RAY SUAREZ: Right, to build new everything.

And people who want to escape the terrible grinding poverty of the urban areas and get a little bit of that new affluence in the cities can’t do that easily as well. China is trying to forestall just a rush into already overburdened cities. There isn’t enough housing. There’s not enough jobs.

How are you going to keep them down on the farm is not just an old punchline. It’s a real question.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Ray, thank you very much. Good stuff.

RAY SUAREZ: thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to another story affecting millions of Chinese, as well as one in 10 Asian Americans.