The COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts on individuals and communities as a whole are yet another stark reminder that both the health authorities and citizens must continue to take the issue of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) very seriously.
Based on what the medical professionals have found so far, most of the persons who have died as a result of contracting COVID-19 had had some kind of underlying health complications, many of which were related to NCDs.
Guyana’s COVID-19 death toll at the moment is 106. For a small population such as ours, this is quite disturbing, to say the least, and it is therefore crucial that the Government, more particularly the Ministry of Health, treat this issue with the greatest degree of urgency. According to PAHO/WHO, people with underlying health conditions, such as NCDs, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer, have a higher risk of contracting severe COVID-19 disease, and are more likely to die from COVID-19. Risk factors for persons with NCDs can make people more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with COVID-19. For example, smokers may have reduced lung capacity, which would greatly increase risk of serious illness.
PAHO/WHO has suggested that informing populations about these health risks posed by COVID-19 is critical. Even before the pandemic, poor lifestyle choices such as tobacco use, alcohol abuse, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity had resulted in large numbers of people falling sick and dying.
It is also believed that around 40 per cent of Guyanese are either overweight or obese, and of that number, the majority are women.
Health experts say that chronic diseases result largely from bad food choices and low levels of physical activity. Reducing the risk of developing chronic illnesses, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and various cancers, is associated with living a healthy lifestyle, which include such factors as not smoking, consuming a healthy diet, engaging in regular physical activity, moderate alcohol intake and having a sense of mental wellbeing.
For instance, evidence suggests that half of all cancers could be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle. Further, NCDs come at a high cost to individuals and to nation states in terms of human suffering, expensive treatment, and loss of production. It is estimated that the direct and indirect cost of treating non-communicable diseases in Guyana is over 10 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
What is noteworthy is the realisation that most cases of chronic non-communicable diseases are avoidable, and it is within our individual powers to prevent these diseases from affecting our lives.
So how do we make the breakthrough when it comes to getting our citizens to adopting healthy lifestyles, considering the fact that some persons still operate with a high degree of ignorance.
To begin with, we believe that there is need for greater awareness and knowledge in the society about the dangers of chronic illnesses. On this basis, we urge that there be continuous public education and awareness campaigns across the country to address various health issues.
Research has shown that the numerous media campaigns on HIV/AIDS prevention and care, stigma and discrimination have impacted positively on attitudes and lifestyle changes; and messages in a similar fashion should be created towards addressing non-communicable illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes, or dealing with overweightness and obesity.
The Government, even though it must take the lead in policy drafting and implementation etc, cannot do it alone. The entire society must be actively involved. Perhaps the temples, mosques and churches can take up a more active role in educating their congregations about the need to adopt healthier lifestyles in order to live longer, more fulfilling and happier lives.
Consumer bodies, schools and other educational institutions, civil society groups and, more importantly, the media, also have a role to play, as when we lose our citizens due to premature deaths, the entire country is robbed of its most valuable resource.
It is well accepted that better health is central to human happiness and well-being. It also makes an important contribution to economic progress, as healthy populations live longer, are more productive, and save more. Everyone should therefore aim to live a healthy and full life, and to avoid becoming trapped by NCDs.