Grim Britain

Heart and liver disease is to Tower Hamlets what cholera was 150 years ago

As cholera swept through London in the 1800s, no corner of the capital was left untouched. Hundreds of thousands died as the water-borne disease spread.

But while some improvements were made to the sanitation over the course of the century, it seemed that the East End was left behind. The fast-expanding urban population was forced to live in squalid and crowded conditions, where water supplies became contaminated, and so the area became rife with disease.

In 1866, some 5,973 Londoners perished from cholera, far less than a much more serious epidemic in 1854 (when John Snow identified the symptoms of cholera in Soho), but this time East London was worst affected – accounting for two third of all deaths. Four inquiries concluded that East Water Company was responsible – contaminated water from the River Lea was to blame dead eels found in pipes

The problems had been apparent in the East End for some time with residents of Limehouse sending a petition to parliament, two years after the 1832 epidemic, criticising “the sewers, both public and private” which “are for the most part shallow, narrow and inconvenient, filthy and out of repair, and being chiefly above ground, are exposed to every species of inconvenience and annoyance, and are, from constant exposure, liable to be choked up, and the waters thereof rendered stagnant from dead animals, offal, broken vessels and other refuse and materials of an offensive kind being deposited therin.”

Fast-forward some 150 years and the East End is still at the bottom of the health league tables, albeit for different reasons. According to new figures from Public Health London, Tower Hamlets, ranks as the worse London borough in terms of early mortality deaths with 346.2 per 100,000 (in contrast to Richmond at the other end of the scale with 202.3 per 100,000).

The report was based on the four “major killers” of strokes and heart, lung and liver diseases. Dr Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s director for London region, noted that dying early was blamed on “differences in risk factors such as being overweight, lack of exercise, excessive alcohol.”

But it was the comment made Dr Doyle that early mortality deaths “are linked to economic deprivation” that really struck me. Here we are in 2013, the traditional East End has been gentrified with areas like Shoreditch home to designer outlets and smart restaurants, yet certain swathes of the population are still living in terrible conditions.

I’ve written before about the historic East / West divide in London. What I’ve noted for some time is that the boundaries of East London are changing. Forty years ago Spitalfields was a less than desirable area and there was talk of pulling down many of the lovely 18th century homes. Yet the further east you go in Tower Hamlets, ranked as one of the poorest local authorities in Britain, deprivation is evident.

Clearly cholera and heart disease are very different health conditions. But what reports and statistics from the last 150 years reveal is that it’s East End that always suffers.

Categories: Grim Britain

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