The issue of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and the impact they are having on countries, particularly those in the Caribbean region, recently took the spotlight once again when a leading health expert, Dr Alafia Samuels, disclosed that, based on a recent study, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago were found to have the highest mortality for premature cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the Americas.
For Guyana, in particular, this is indeed quite worrisome, and must serve as a wake-up call for the authorities here to take the issue of fighting NCDs more seriously; as, from all indications, efforts in this regard are being weakened or minimized to some extent.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), of all the major health threats that have emerged over the years, “none has challenged the very foundations of public health so profoundly as the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases”. Due to poor lifestyle choices — such as tobacco use, alcohol abuse, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity — NCDs have resulted in large numbers of young people dying. Another significant number has also fallen ill, and therefore cannot contribute to their families or the development of their communities in any way.
Heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases — once linked only to affluent societies — have affected, and continue to affect, every country in the world; with the poor suffering the most due to the lack of proper medical care and access to drugs etc. In 2007, CARICOM leaders signed what they described as the “ground-breaking” Port of Spain Declaration, aimed at uniting countries to stop the epidemic of NCDs. The declaration was recently evaluated by a team which included Dr Samuels and other regional and international experts.
Based on the Caricom Health Commission team’s findings, Dr Samuels noted, death from non-communicable diseases of persons between the ages of 30 and 69 in the Caribbean is double the rate in North America. The expert noted that of the four areas, the region was able to record success in only one, which was having tobacco consumption reduced. The other three areas, she added, are worse than they were 10 years ago, when the declaration was signed. She pointed out that the risk factor across the region remains poor, and is even more worrisome among children.
In relation to Guyana’s case, while there have been some positive moves in tackling NCDs — such as finalising the Tobacco Control Legislation etc. — some experts believe that enough is not being done in the fight against NCDs. It could be recalled that there was an NCD Strategy in the years 2003-2008, and again in the period 2008-2015, which had outlined a comprehensive and effective programme to fight NCDs. It is not clear if these strategies are still being used as a guide by health authorities.
Former Minister of Health, Dr Leslie Ramsammy, was recently quoted in this newspaper as saying that some of the crucial programmes that were previously in place to tackle NCDs appear to have been reduced or totally abandoned. He in particular pointed to the aggressive education and awareness campaigns that were very visible some years ago. Also, community health fairs, school programmes and other initiatives which were used to address such issues as positive lifestyles are becoming less visible. These are all useful strategies in ensuring the message of healthy lifestyles continues to reach everyone in every community across the country. From all indications, they are being done in a limited fashion. However, we believe that for such efforts to be successful, they must be done on a consistent basis, utilising the most effective methods. Discussions surrounding NCDs should constantly be kept on the national development agenda, where serious efforts should be made at all levels to reduce the large numbers of persons suffering or facing death. On this basis, there is need for more collaborative efforts among all stakeholders, including support from private sector bodies, to tackle NCDs, since all of them are affected by loss of labour force etc.
The findings of the recent study which places Guyana as having the highest mortality for premature cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the Americas is yet another reminder that we cannot afford to treat chronic NCDs lightly.