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 very seriously the issue of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
Based on what the medical professionals have found so far, the majority of the persons who have died from contracting COVID-19 had some kind of underlying heath complications, many of which are related to NCDs. Guyana’s COVID-19 death rate at the moment is 308. For a small population such as ours, this is quite disturbing, to say the least.
The Government previously pointed out that several critical areas in the nation’s healthcare delivery were ignored to a large extent, and this is why renewed efforts have to be made to bring all levels of the health sector up to par, including putting effective and efficient systems in place to tackle NCDs.
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 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. In addition, health services need to be adapted to maintain essential NCD services to ensure continuity of care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to poor lifestyle choices, such as tobacco use, alcohol abuse, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity, NCDs have resulted in large numbers of people falling sick and dying.
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 of regional and international experts.
Sometime last year, leading health expert Dr Alafia Samuels had disclosed that, based on a study, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago were found to have the highest mortality for premature cardiovascular disease and diabetes in the Americas.
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 years 2008-2015, which outlined a comprehensive and effective programme to fight NCDs. It is not clear if these are still being used as a guide by health authorities.
Former Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy was 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 during the tenure of the previous administration. Dr Ramsammy had, in particular, pointed to the aggressive education and awareness campaigns that were very much visible some years ago. Also, community health fairs and school programmes and other initiatives which were used to address issues such as positive lifestyles had become less visible.
These are all useful strategies to ensure the message of healthy lifestyles continues to reach everyone in every community across the country. From all indications, some of these measures are being taken, but they are being done in a limited fashion.
We believe that discussions surrounding NCDs should constantly be kept on the national development agenda, where serious efforts are 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.
That said, while the various stakeholders are involved in the battle to conquer the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hoped that they would redouble their efforts to effectively address NCDs and their risk factors with a medium to long term vision.