Health care in Nicaragua: a social and historical perspective

N Y State J Med. 1984 Oct;84(10):523-5.


PIP: To facilitate understanding of the advances in health care in Nicaragua since 1979, this discussion examines them within a historical framework. Nicaragua was occupied by US marines almost continuously from 1909-33. In 1933, their withdrawal left in power the US backed National Guard and the 1st dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Health conditions under the Somoza regime are difficult to evaluate because lack of data and underreporting were the norm. The health care system under Somoza was administered by 23 separate agencies, including the National Social Security Institute (INSS), a national Ministry of Health, independent local health ministries, and autonomous public hospital governing boards. On July 19, 1979, the dictatorship was overthrown in a popular uprising. Somoza left behind a foreign debt of 1.6 billion dollars, which the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) needed to honor to qualify for needed loans. Following Somoza's defeat, the new government faced the problem of how to care for the tens of thousands of persons wounded and how to distribute the aid and medical supplies coming in from other countries. The key to achieving these tasks was popular participation and organization. By the early part of 1980, the new government was addressing more directly the organization of the health care system. Unlike the fragmented services under Somoza, health care in the new Nicaragua fell under the control of a unified Ministry of Health (MINSA). In 1980, the FSLN initiated an intensive campaign against illiteracy, 100,000 young Nicaraguans, called "brigadistas," were trained and sent around the country to teach basic reading and writing. In addition, 1 out of 10 was trained in elementary health principles. They were responsible for educating others about hygiene and basic sanitation as well as distributing antimalarial medication. 5 popular Health Campaigns were waged during 1981 against polio; measles, diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus; rabies; poor sanitation; and malaria. Since women and children make up about 75% of the population, maternal and child health is a priority. The Sandinistas' approach to diarrhea and dehydration, a major cause of morbidity and mortality in children, has been the creation of over 200 oral rehydration units. The purpose of these units, in addition to the oral replacement of an appropriate salt and glucose solution, is to educate health care workers about the prevention and treatment of diarrheal disease. The education of health care workers also has been a priority. With increased access to health services, there is a chronic shortage of supplies and personnel and capital to build new facilities. International aid has been very important to health. Diverting funds away from Nicaraguan destabilization and toward social needs here in the US would have a positive impact on health services for the people of both Nicaragua and the US.

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Nicaragua
  • United States