South Africa’s Most Deadly Diseases

In South Africa, a struggling national healthcare system means that unless you have medical aid and can afford private treatment, it can be a challenge to get proper healthcare. The state of national healthcare is also reflected in the country’s grim statistics [pdf], with many people dying every year from largely preventable diseases. Here we provide an overview of the 10 most significant chronic conditions in the country, with numbers of fatalities as released by Statistics South Africa.

Mycobacterium tuberculosis

Image by TimVickers

1: Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is South Africa’s biggest killer. In 2009, it accounted for more than 69,000 deaths, or roughly 12.6% of all deaths in that year. It has held its position as the leading cause of death in South Africa since 1997, although in 2011, the number of deaths attributed to TB dropped to 10.7%. Tuberculosis is a treatable condition. However, it’s easily spread via air-borne particles due to coughing and sneezing, and treatment regimens have to be strictly followed for protracted periods. Even more significantly for South Africa, given its high rate of HIV infection, tuberculosis is often contracted by those with compromised immune systems – often it goes hand in hand with AIDS.

EM of influenza virus

Image by TimVickers

2: Influenza and pneumonia

7.7% of all deaths were attributed to influenza or pneumonia. According to a study conducted in South Africa by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2009 and 2011, 44% of all patients tested also had HIV. This same study showed that HIV-infected patients were far more likely to have pneumonia as a co-infection; the reason these two diseases appear together on this list. Diabetes and cardiovascular disease, two other prevalent diseases in South Africa, are also worsened as underlying conditions when a person has influenza and/or pneumonia.

3: Gastric diseases

6.6% of deaths were attributed to infectious intestinal diseases like diarrhoea and gastroenteritis. Typically fatalities occur due to severe dehydration, and children are the most vulnerable.

Contributing factors

It’s important to consider why a treatable disease continues to top the list of South Africa’s biggest killers. It’s not only because tuberculosis is more easily transmitted than many other diseases, although that is a relevant factor. It’s also because, especially in poorer areas, people aren’t vaccinated, can’t afford medical aid and don’t have access to adequate healthcare services.

If the statistics provided by Statistics SA are further broken down based on different income groups, it becomes clear that heart disease is a leading cause of mortality among middle and upper-class groups. Gastric diseases like cholera, which are associated with contaminated drinking water and other squalid conditions, are more common in poor areas where living standards are low. From a racial perspective, AIDS remains one of the top 10 leading causes of death for black South Africans, but not for white, coloured or Indian populations.

It’s good to know that although the South African mortality rates for treatable diseases are high, the overall death rate in South Africa is decreasing. This is likely due to better service delivery, better education relating to transmittable diseases, the emergence of cheap medical aid options and improving access to good nutrition and healthcare.

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