Background: Urban slums, like refugee communities, comprise a social cluster that engenders a distinct set of health problems. With 1 billion people currently estimated to live in such communities, this neglected population has become a major reservoir for a wide spectrum of health conditions that the formal health sector must deal with.
Discussion: Unlike what occurs with refugee populations, the formal health sector becomes aware of the health problems of slum populations relatively late in the course of their illnesses. As such, the formal health sector inevitably deals with the severe and end-stage complications of these diseases at a substantially greater cost than what it costs to manage non-slum community populations. Because of the informal nature of slum settlements, and cultural, social, and behavioral factors unique to the slum populations, little is known about the spectrum, burden, and determinants of illnesses in these communities that give rise to these complications, especially of those diseases that are chronic but preventable. In this article, we discuss observations made in one slum community of 58,000 people in Salvador, the third largest city in Brazil, to highlight the existence of a spectrum and burden of chronic illnesses not likely to be detected by the formal sector health services until they result in complications or death. Lack of health-related data from slums could lead to inappropriate and unrealistic allocation of health care resources by the public and private providers. Similar misassumptions and misallocations are likely to exist in other nations with large urban slum populations.
Summary: Continued neglect of ever-expanding urban slum populations in the world could inevitably lead to greater expenditure and diversion of health care resources to the management of end-stage complications of diseases that are preventable. A new approach to health assessment and characterization of social-cluster determinants of health in urban slums is urgently needed.