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Guyana has made genuine gains in life expectancy, reducing child, maternal mortalities

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Two daily newspapers prominently carried a letter penned by Dr. Kenrick Hunte. Dr. Hunte made reference to a statement by the President, HE Dr. Irfaan Ali, who stated last week that Guyana has made progress in improving life expectancy and maternal and infant mortalities. While conceding that this is welcome news, he clearly also questioned the accuracy of the statement.

He also included a table from Worldometer with life expectancies from other CARICOM countries. The objective was clear, the criticism was obvious – even if life expectancies are improving in Guyana, the country still lags behind life expectancies in the Caribbean, thus rendering the President’s statement as idle boast.

Let us be unequivocal – there have been real and meaningful improvements in life expectancies, child and maternal mortalities in our country. The President accurately highlighted the progress the progress Guyana has achieved in health as it relates to life expectancies and child and maternal mortalities.

Importantly, this note is intended to show that Guyana has considerably reduced the gap that existed between Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean countries and that, at the present pace, between 2025 and 2030, Guyana will, at the minimum, be similar to other Caribbean countries, if not better than many countries, when it comes to life expectancies.

For the benefit of Dr. Hunte and others who wonder about methodology for calculating life expectancies, Guyana’s calculations for life expectancies are based on the exact same formula used by the WHO and is consistent with the formula used in the vast majority of countries, including all developed countries and the vast majority of developing countries.

At the moment, Guyana’s life expectancy is approaching 71, with life expectancy for women at 74 and for men at 70. The global average for life expectancy is 73.4.  Thus, Guyana is still below the global average for life expectancy. Between 1950 and 1965, Guyana’s life expectancy was significantly higher than the global average (1950: Guyana vs Global average = 49.5 vs 46.5; 1965: 60vs. 54). But between 1965 and 1990, Guyana dropped for the first time below the global average. In 1990, Guyana’s life expectancy was 61 compared to the global average of 64. Guyana has set a target for 2030 to be once again above the global average for life expectancy.  

In 1950 and 1965, Guyana’s life expectancy lagged behind that of the ten Caribbean countries Dr. Hunte identified., with a disparity of 4.1 years in 1950 and 4.9 years in 1965. This gap widened considerably between 1965 and 1990, averaging approximately 8 years. However, from 1990 to present, the gap has notably diminished to just over 4. Guyana is catching up.

The gradual improvement and increase in life expectancy in our country is substantiated by the Ministry of health’s data on life expectancy, as well as on child and maternal mortality. This trend is further evidenced by the growing number of individuals living beyond 65, the age of eligibility for old-age pensions. For instance, in the early 2000s, approximately 42,000 individuals were receiving pensions, compared to about 74,000 today. While it is important to exercise caution when correlating the number of old-age pension recipients with life expectancy in Guyana – since not everyone over 65 years applies for a pension – the general trend remains clear: increased life expectancy is associated with a rise in the number of individuals on the old-age pension roll.       

The Ministry of Human Services has plans to establish a Centurian Club in Guyana. What was a very rare event in Guyana in 1990 and even in 2000 is no longer a rare event. Almost every week, we now celebrate the birth anniversary of another Centurian in our country. This is a concrete example of an increase in life expectancy.

There is another example in our health data that validates the real increase in life expectancy – the number of persons dying prematurely from non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs). In 1990, more than 90% of persons living with an NCD, died prematurely before the age of 65. Today, that number has decreased dramatically to about 58%. This is a genuine measure that life expectancies in our country have increased.

In 1990, our health indicators were negatively way out of range of health indicators for CARICOM countries, outside of Haiti. Our numbers were more equivalent to countries in sub-Shara Africa. Since 1990, Guyana has made progress in reducing the gap through strong public health and hospital programs, with more investment in health, moving the per capita investment from less than $US7 to now almost $US 900.

One reason for reduced child mortality is the fact that while in 1990, Guyana utilized just five vaccines and coverage were between 50 and 60%, today, we use 21 vaccines and coverage for almost all of them are between 95 and 100%.

No Guyanese citizen should believe we have reached the pinnacle; there is still much work to be done. However, President Irfaan Ali, VP Bharat Jagdeo, Minister Frank Anthony and the government have valid reasons to celebrate the country’s improving health indicators.  Since 1990, Guyana has gained nearly ten years in life expectancy. Guyana has also meaningfully reduced child and maternal mortalities.  Despite the challenges posed by the emergence of HIV/AIDS just before 1990 that plagued Guyana throughout the 1990s, the uncontrolled spread of malaria throughout the 1980s, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic, Guyana has made significant strides in improving our health indicators. The gap in life expectancy between Guyana and its Caribbean counterparts has notably decreased. This progress is undeniable.  

Dr. Leslie Ramsammy

June 1, 2024

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