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New National Data Paints Picture of Pandemic Life in Brazil, with Chronic Diseases Posing New Wave of Long-Term Health Concerns Among Brazilians

Data from five regions of the country shows changes in habits during pandemic increased risks for diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases

27 April 2022 (São Paulo, Brazil) — Disruptions to daily life during the pandemic poses negative long-term health concerns for Brazilians according to new available data from Covitel, survey on non-transmissible chronic diseases. The number of Brazilians who negatively evaluated their health condition increased by 91.8% between the pre-pandemic period and the first quarter of 2022, reporting it as ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’. Changes in mental health also call attention, with the diagnosis of depression increasing among Brazilian adults.

These findings are part of an unprecedented national telephone survey, Covitel, to determine risk factors for chronic non-communicable diseases and other long-term health concerns during the pandemic. The survey was developed by Vital Strategies, a global public health organization, and by the Federal University of Pelotas (UFPel), through the articulation and financing of Umane and co-financed by Ibirapitanga Institute and supported by the Brazilian Association of Collective Health (Abrasco). 

“In Brazil, about 70% of deaths are caused by the consequences of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Covitel came about to contribute to building knowledge about the influence of COVID-19 on the risk factors that lead to increased prevalence’s of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases,” explains Thais Junqueira, General Superintendent of Umane.

Nine thousand Brazilians from capital cities and cities in the interior of the five regions of Brazil were interviewed by telephone (landline and cell phone) over January to March of 2022. The survey included questions about physical activity practice, eating habits, alcohol and tobacco consumption – all of which are known risk factors for non-communicable diseases. Respondents also provided information about their general health perception, mental health and on gender, age, race, education, and employment status.

Respondents were asked about their habits during two time periods: pre-pandemic COVID-19 and in the first quarter of 2022, when the interviews were conducted and COVID-19 vaccines were already widely available. With this, a comparison can be made between the two times.

Key survey findings include:

  • The number of people who negatively evaluated their health status increased by 91.5%, reporting that it is ‘bad’ or ‘very bad.’
  • Consumption of vegetables five times a week or more fell 12.5%, from 45.1% pre-pandemic to 39.5% in the first quarter of 2022.
  • Activity in leisure time (those who practice physical activities in their free time equivalent to at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week per the World Health Organization recommendation) decreased by 21.4% during the pandemic.
  • Medical diagnosis of depression increased by 41% between the pre-pandemic period and the first quarter of 2022. The largest increases were among women, 39.3%, and in people with higher education (12 years or more of study), 53.8%.

The survey also asked questions that referred only to health status and habits at the time of the interviews, in Q1 2022, without comparing to pre-pandemic. Highlights include:

  • 20.6% of Brazilians had consumed alcohol abusively in the previous month (four doses or more for women and five doses or more for men).
  • 52.6% of people reported having a body mass index (BMI) equal to or greater than 25 kg/m², which is a risk factor for non-communicable diseases.

“Covitel showed that the pandemic disrupted the fight against chronic non-communicable diseases in Brazil, increasing some risky behaviors, such as physical inactivity,” reinforces Pedro Hallal, full professor at the School of Physical Education at the Federal University of Pelotas (UFPel) and one of the research coordinators. “The reduction of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week happened at the same time that eating habits worsened, with a decrease in the consumption of vegetables and legumes, for example. The only positive highlight regarding food was the reduction in the consumption of soft drinks and artificial juices, which fell 25.4% in Brazil,” adds Hallal.

The indicators related to the prevalence of confirmed medical diagnosis for hypertension and diabetes also draw attention. Between the periods compared in the survey, there was no statistically significant increase. However, contrary to what it may seem, this is not necessarily good news: “This stability may be linked to the lower access to medical diagnosis during the period of social isolation, when people stopped seeking health services, thus hindering timely treatments for these important health issues”, explains Luciana Sardinha, Technical Advisor of Public Health and Epidemiology at Vital Strategies and one of the coordinators of the study.  

Covitel also brought indications of how the pandemic has worsened health inequalities. Among the 12 indicators that had statistically significant changes for Brazil, the group of people who lost their jobs during the pandemic had the worst results in eight of them. When the focus is on COVID-19, the discrepancies are also evident. While 94.4% of those with the highest education (12 years or more of schooling) had completed the vaccination schedule by Q1 2022, only 76.9% of those with the lowest education (0 to 8 years of schooling) had taken all the recommended doses. 

The creators of the research remember that the non-transmissible chronic diseases, in great measure, are avoidable. “Data such as those brought by Covitel are essential for health surveillance, guiding priorities, planning and actions related to public health policies”, says Pedro de Paula, Executive Director of Vital Strategies.  “We need to invest in an agenda based on data, working together, facing inequalities and, of course, fighting chronic non-communicable diseases. With intelligence in public health, we prevent diseases, promote quality of life, and, most importantly, save lives. At the same time, we optimize resources, reducing the costs for treatment and the consequences of the loss of productivity of a sick population”, adds.

For complete data access, visit http://observatoriodaaps.com.br/ 

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes all people should be protected by a strong public health system. It works with governments and civil society in 73 countries, including Brazil, to design and implement evidence-based strategies that address their greatest health challenges. The goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as soon as possible. To learn more, visit www.vitalstrategies.org.

About UFPel

The Federal University of Pelotas (UFPel) is a Brazilian institution of higher education whose campuses are located in the cities of Pelotas and Capão do Leão, in Rio Grande do Sul. It currently offers 99 undergraduate programs, 39 master’s programs, and 16 doctoral programs distributed over 20 academic units (6 Basic Institutes, 12 Faculties, 1 School of Physical Education, and 1 Music Conservatory). Currently, UFPel has master’s and/or doctorate courses in all areas of knowledge: Exact and Earth Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, Agricultural Sciences, Health Sciences, Applied Social Sciences, Human Sciences, Linguistics, Literature and Arts, as well as multidisciplinary courses.

About Umane

Umane is a non-profit civil association dedicated to supporting, developing and accelerating disease prevention and health promotion initiatives in the field of public health, with the objectives of contributing to a more effective health system and improving the quality of life of the Brazilian population.

About the Ibirapitanga Institute

Ibirapitanga Institute is an organization dedicated to defending freedoms and deepening democracy in Brazil. Since 2017, it has supported initiatives from its two programs – Racial Equity and Food Systems. Through donations, the Institute supports Brazilian civil society organizations, movements, and collectives that wish to produce positive structural transformations in the country. Founded by filmmaker Walter Salles, Ibirapitanga operates with its own resources from the proceeds of an equity fund.