Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Why Indigenous Groups in Latin America Need Better Access to Health Care

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Colombia’s National Health Superintendant fined six health care providers over $1 million each, last week, after finding that their failure to provide adequate medical and vaccination services to Indigenous communities in the northern department of La Guajira contributed to the 2013 deaths from malnutrition of 12 Wayuu children.  

La Guajira is home to the largest population of Indigenous peoples in Colombia. Over the past eight years, hundreds of children in the region have died from treatable diseases and malnutrition, in part as the result of poor sanitation and irregular access to health services.

The case highlights how different—and often inferior—health services for Indigenous communities in Colombia can be when compared to the general population. And the country isn’t alone. Though several Latin American governments have created agencies specifically to oversee care in Indigenous communities, health outcomes for these communities are often well below national averages.  

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, infant mortality among Indigenous communities in the region is 60 percent greater than for non-indigenous populations (48 per one thousand births compared to 30 per one thousand). Malnutrition is twice as common among Indigenous children as it is among non-Indigenous children.

The causes of this inequity are varied. According to a report by Minority Rights Group International, an advocacy group, one major reason for differing health outcomes is open discrimination; longer waits to see doctors and reduced access to quality medication are other—often related—causes. Cultural factors may also play a role. According to the same report, many indigenous peoples’ perceptions of health and well-being “contrast with the ways in which most governments measure health,” and are “linked to the community, not the individual.”

Following a visit to La Guajira last month, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said that his country “[…] cannot allow even one child in Colombia to die from lack of proper nourishment.” For that to happen, health care access and outcomes for Indigenous communities will have to improve. Penalizing inadequate providers is a good start.

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