Social program investments affect disease incidence rates: USask research

How much does a country’s investment in social programs, such as parental leave and employment insurance, influence rates of disease such as measles in a population? The answer is – quite significantly.

(Photo: Laurent Peignault/Unsplash)

USask PhD graduate, Dr. Mary Ellen Walker, and family. (Photo: Submitted)
USask PhD graduate, Dr. Mary Ellen Walker, and family. (Photo: Submitted)

During her nursing doctorate program at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), Dr. Mary Ellen Walker (PhD) set out to find how government-funded social supports, such as old-age pension, unemployment benefits, sick leave and parental leave, can affect the rates of infectious diseases.  

Other relevant factors include vaccination rates, income and education levels, politics, wealth, and the country’s location. 

I became interested in this kind of research after travelling to other places and questioning how socioeconomic conditions influence health,” said Walker, who earned her PhD in 2021 from USask’s College of Nursing.  

Walker’s research found that measles immunization and government spending on social programs were key players associated with measles infection rates.  

On average, decreases in countries’ measles infections are associated with increases in measles vaccinations and social spending,” said Walker. “In fact, these two variables work together to decrease measles infections.” 

In fact, greater levels of social program spending are linked to lower levels of measles infections at the national level. Future research could explore if factors such as welfare programs, parental leave offerings and the types of unemployment benefits offered to citizens by their government, influence their decisions to receive vaccinations, preventing further outbreaks. 

Another interesting finding was that lower rates of measles infections were related to higher levels of wealth in the country. 

The work is unique in that it used research methods relatively new to nursing. Walker used geographical information systems to understand and explore statistics related to disease incidence rates in different locations and related these statistics to public policy in the region. 

More than just statistical facts about disease incidence rates, Walker’s research examines how national policy decisions can influence health, as well as a nation’s ability to implement preventive interventions for disease control. 

“[My work] helps to deepen the understanding of how policies that address poverty, vulnerability, and social exclusion influence the health of the overall population,” she said.  

The results of the study were published in the Global Journal of Health Science and the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health in 2021. Walker also had the opportunity to travel to San Diego, Calif., to share her preliminary results at the American Public Health Association Conference in 2018. The project was supervised by Dr. June Anonson (PhD) from the College of Nursing and Dr. Michael Szafron (PhD) from USask’s School of Public Health. 

Walker currently works as a diabetes nurse clinician for the Saskatchewan Health Authority and as a statistician for the Department of Anthesiology at USask’s College of Medicine. She hopes to continue to develop her skills as both a nurse and a researcher in these roles. 

The research was supported by USask and the Canadian Nurses Foundation. 

This article first ran as part of the 2022 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.

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