China's rapidly ageing population threatens to cause a serious drain on the nation's public health system, which is already struggling to make ends meet, a senior health insurance official warned yesterday. Addressing a two-day China-US Health Care Forum in Beijing, Yao Hong , director of the Ministry of Labour and Social Security's Health Insurance Department, said the ratio of employed workers to retirees had fallen from 3.2:1 in 2000 to 2.6:1 this year. The health insurance fund, established in 1998, contained 27.9 billion yuan by the end of last year, but the growth rate of expenditure had far surpassed growth in income during the past four years. 'Going down this track, the public health insurance system will face a deficit soon,' Mr Yao said. In some urban areas such as Shanghai, the employed-retired ratio was as low as 1.53:1. 'It is a dangerous ratio, and the problems in Tianjin and Xinjiang ... are no less severe,' he said. In addition, the nation's senior citizens were tending to have more chronic and costly diseases, including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular problems and neurological illnesses. 'Also, the incidence of disease increases as people grow old. So although retired people make up a smaller percentage of the population, they rely much more on the health-care system than people who are still working,' Mr Yao said. He also hinted that the legal retirement age could be partly responsible for the low ratio of workers to retirees. 'China established the retirement age, which averages out at 51.7 years, in the early 1950s, when the average life span was only 39 years,' he said. Although the national average life expectancy had risen to 70 years by 2000, the retirement age remained more or less unchanged. Many women working for poorly performing state-owned enterprises, in particular, were forced to resign as early as 45. Despite the difficulties, the ministry is keen to widen the health-care system's coverage to include migrant workers and their families. By the end of May, 129 million people were covered by the public health system, with 27 per cent of them retired.