The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is a country located in the Pacific Ocean. In total, there are 1,200 islands and islets with a total population of 58,000. Although the estimated life expectancy in the Marshall Islands was 72 years in 1987, the life expectancy dropped to 65 in 2000. Today, the Marshallese have an estimated life expectancy of 74. By comparison, the United States has a life expectancy of 78. Here are some of the problems with and potential solutions to life expectancy in the Marshall Islands.
10 Facts about Life Expectancy in the Marshall Islands
- The leading causes of death in the Marshall Islands are diabetes and Ischemic heart disease. In 2017, it was estimated that 5,642 per 100,000 deaths were caused by Ischemic heart diseases. Many people in the Marshall Islands suffer from problems associated with low levels of physical activity and occupational hazards. The Ministry of Health has created government programs to encourage exercise.
- Life expectancy decreased after the 1940s because of U.S. nuclear weapon testing on the islands. During the Cold War, the United States decided to test multiple nuclear weapons on the islands. They moved dangerous soil from a Nevada atomic testing location into the Marshall Islands. Despite the U.S. relocating residents from the Bikini and Enewetak atolls, the citizens have still experienced symptoms of radiation sickness. Lingering radiation may be responsible for 170 different types of cancer in a population of 25,000 Marshallese.
- Dengue fever outbreaks pose a risk to life expectancy. Dengue fever can lead to more severe conditions in 5% of the population. In 2019, the island of Ebeye, which is the country’s most populated island, experienced a massive outbreak due to rampant mosquitoes. Because of these outbreaks, the Ministry of Health issued $450,000 to fight the disease.
- The country’s life expectancy is similar to other surrounding countries. In 2018, the Marshall Islands’ estimated life expectancy matched that of the Federated States of Micronesia at 67 years old. Most life expectancy data from the Marshall Islands has not been updated since the early 2000s, and the WHO has marked their life expectancy data as not available. Though the information is not clear, there is currently an approximate life expectancy of 74 according to the World Factbook.
- Life expectancy in the Marshall Islands is threatened by rising sea levels. The islands may completely disappear by 2050 because of rising sea levels. This threat affects life expectancy and quality of life, since Marshallese could become refugees as a result. Global support and funding to reduce pollution could help reduce this risk. There has also been discussion about a possibility of raising the islands above sea level.
- Various dangerous weather conditions affect life expectancy. The islanders have experienced droughts, bleaching coral reefs and cyclones. Wave flooding due to changing climate conditions could also gradually make water unsuitable for drinking. In September 2012, a drought damaged much of the islands’ produce, affecting 20% of the population. To combat climate change, the Internal Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) are committed to drastic reductions of carbon emissions by 32% by 2025.
- Women have a longer life expectancy than men. Projections for 2020 estimated that women will live 76.5 years, compared to their male counterparts who will live 71.8 years. However, health care is not equally accessible between the sexes. In 2019, the Marshall Islands introduced the Gender Equality Act to change this. It specified the government’s responsibility to provide affordable health care to all women.
- Imported processed foods diminish the life expectancy of the Marshallese. A 2013 study conducted by the National Institute of Health found that 65% of the islanders are overweight or obese. Marshallese diets often lack micronutrients because many eat more packaged food than fresh island-grown food. This has caused problems associated with multiple diseases. The Ministry of Resources and Development is attempting to change this by promoting traditional island agriculture and diets.
- Health care causes problems with life expectancy. Health care in the Marshall Islands is as cheap as $5 per checkup. Despite this, health care can be hard to access. Much of the population does not reside in urban centers, yet there are only two major hospitals in the larger cities of Ebeye and Majuro. The Ministry of Health has enacted a 3-Year Rolling Strategic Plan to ensure that health care is accessible on the less populated islands. The plan will also help fight non-communicable and communicable diseases that affect life expectancy.
- Limited job opportunities decrease life expectancy. The minimum wage on the island was $5/hour as of 2014, and in 2016, the unemployment rate was about 36%. Since there is not much competition in different job sectors, jobs can be difficult to find. Additionally, the estimated poverty rate in the Marshall Islands stands at 30%. These factors make it difficult for Marshallese to pay for health care. To increase job opportunities, the government is working to attract foreign companies to the islands by enticing them to create fisheries and tourism.
These facts highlight persistent problems, as well as efforts to combat them. Moving forward, the government and other humanitarian organizations must continue to focus on improving life expectancy in the Marshall Islands.
– Sarah Litchney