Country Representative of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, Dr Gillian Smith was quoted in the media as saying at a recent World Food Day event here that over 40 per cent of Guyanese are either overweight or obese and of that number, the majority are women.
While lauding Guyana and the rest of the Caribbean region for the immense progress made in reducing absolute hunger, Dr Smith underscored the point that overweightness and obesity is another dangerous problem which must be tackled by policy makers and other development partners.
While the recent comments by Dr Smith did not come as a surprise, they indeed serve as a reminder that the issue of non-communicable diseases (NCD) and the need to adopt healthy lifestyle changes must remain a central part of the national discourse on the development of our human capital.
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 includes such factors as not smoking, a healthy diet, regular physical activity, moderate alcohol intake and a sense of mental wellbeing. For example, evidence suggests that half of all cancers could be prevented by following a healthy lifestyle. Citizens therefore need to make a conscious effort to check on the status of their health regularly, instead of procrastinating, which further compromises their health.
NCDs come at a high cost to individuals and to nation states in terms of human suffering, expensive treatment and loss of production. For example, Dr Smith explained that a 2011 cost of illness assessment, done by the Health Ministry in collaboration with the PAHO/WHO, estimated that the direct and indirect cost of treating non-communicable diseases in Guyana was over 10 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This, she noted, threatens to erode the human capital.
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 adopt 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 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 they must take the lead as it relates to 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 – its people.
Additionally, while individual responsibility and choice are crucial factors affecting the incidence of chronic diseases, public policy, public education, qualitative regulation of food imports, licensing laws to protect consumers and gearing the environment to support prevention of chronic diseases are also pre-requisites for combating this epidemic.
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.