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Literacy has larger impact on public health in India than increasing average income

According to a new study by UK’s Cambridge University, literacy has a greater impact on public health among India’s poor than increasing average income.

Pro-market policies for developing countries have long been based on the belief that increasing average income is key to improving public health and societal well-being. 

But new research on India published in the journal ‘Social Science and Medicine’ shows that literacy – a non-income good – has a greater impact on public health in India.

While the researchers, based at Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, accept it is broadly true that “wealthier is healthier” across the roughly 500 districts in India’s major states, accounting for 95 per cent of the total population, they find that poverty and crucially, illiteracy, are much stronger predictors of poor public health than low average income. 

A poor district can nonetheless enjoy relatively good public health if it has a high literacy rate, say researchers.

Literacy acts as a base, enabling populations to understand medicine labeling, access healthcare, and engage with public health programmes. 
Using data on income, education and mortality among infants and children under five, the researchers suggest that policymakers concerned with public health should focus on literacy levels rather than average income.

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