Getting NCDs into the headlines

Health TODAY GeorgeGetting the message into the minds of Barbadians that non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs) are a cause of death in young and old, remains a struggle for health officials who continue to see a high human toll from these largely preventable illnesses.

Heart problems, hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and issues associated with breathing are major killers in Barbados but the high incidence of death is somehow not having a big impact nationally or serving as a warning sign to many persons at risk who are walking around, in many instances, unaware of the existence of such conditions.

In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that based on current lifestyle habits, 14 per cent of Barbadians between the ages of 30 and 70 will probably die from NCDs, but such a high toll on persons in their active adult years is failing to cause the society to sit up and take note.

Deputy Dean, Pre-clinical and Medical Sciences, at  the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, Dr Kenneth Connell, declared at a recent health forum:  “The NCDs are not sexy enough”.

Dr Kenneth Connell
Dr Kenneth Connell

Dr Connell compared NCD-related deaths to those stemming from motor vehicle accidents. “Every time there is a serious accident, it is on the news. Every time a young person dies in an accident, it’s on the news. When a 25-year-old comes into the emergency room and dies of a heart attack, no one knows.

“Therefore the NCDs are still seen as this 50’s, 60’s generation type disease,” he said. “We need to see these faces [of young people] as we saw for HIV and all the other contagious diseases. We need to see young faces with stroke, and young faces who have had a heart attack. That’s the only way it’s going to relate to us that we’re
at risk.”

At the same forum, Director of the Chronic Disease Research Centre, Dr Alafia Samuels, who had delivered a lecture on the devastation being caused by NCDs, responded to Dr Connell’s concern about road fatalities getting prominent news coverage, while NCD deaths went unreported.

Dr Alafia Samuels
Dr Alafia Samuels

“That’s a part of the problem. It is private medical information. If you have an accident on the road, everybody sees it. But if you have a heart attack and come into the hospital, we can’t tell everybody about it. It’s your private business,” she said.

“We just not grabbing the public’s attention … how can we get on the front page [of newspapers]?” she asked.

Dr Samuels also said a problem with NCDs is that they don’t get a trendy rating as other diseases that pop up and go away. “When Ebola [was around], it was on everybody’s lips. How come I’m not hearing heart attack on everybody’s lips. What is it we need to do?”

NCDs and their demolishing effect, however, recently began getting headlines with the ‘sudden deaths’ of persons across the island. Medical personnel prefer the term ‘premature deaths’, because closer examination might show there was nothing sudden about the demise of most of those persons.

Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr Kenneth George, earlier this month explained that the 24 media-reported premature deaths occurring between late January and mid-June stemmed from NCDs such as heart attack, stroke, brain haemorrhage, acute pulmonary embolism (clotting in the lungs) and acute arrhythmia.

Dr Kenneth George
Dr Kenneth George

The only thing sudden about those deaths was the attention they picked up on social and traditional media. Twenty-one persons died in the same period last year in similar fashion, but the incidents went mostly unreported.

Nonetheless, the reported incidents of sudden deaths this year represent only a fraction of the 14 per cent of adults below the age of 70 who are dying of NCDs.

Advisor on Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health at the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) Barbados Country Office, Dr Tomo Kanda, told Health TODAY that Bajans are not suffering the quiet NCD deaths alone. It is a Caribbean-wide occurrence, she said.

Dr Tomo Kanda
Dr Tomo Kanda

“These four major NCDs’ morbidity is quite high in Barbados. This trend, this prevalence, is in all Caribbean countries. When we look at premature mortality because of NCDs, people dying aged between 30 and 70, because of non-communicable diseases is still high,” she said.

She added that the four major risk factors that contribute to NCDs are unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol, and tobacco use. “These risk factors are quite high in not only Barbados but also all the Eastern Caribbean countries.

“For example, overweight, obesity in adults, the female population is quite high in Barbados. Similar trends are observed in Dominica, Bahamas, St Kitts and Nevis, pretty much all Caribbean countries.”

The Healthy Caribbean Coalition, headed by a prominent fighter of NCDs in Barbados, Professor Sir Trevor Hassell, has stated that the Caribbean is the region of the Americas worst affected by the epidemic of chronic diseases.

“Hypertension is one of the most important risk factors for heart disease and has been shown to affect 22.6 per cent, 25.8 per cent and 27.0 per cent of the population in Jamaica, St. Lucia and Barbados respectively,” the prominent Barbadian cardiologist said.

“Obesity and overweight [are] an ever increasing concern and challenge in almost all Caribbean countries. For example, in Barbados, one-third of men and three-fifths of women are overweight, and the incidence of obesity for men is nine per cent and that for women 13.1 per cent.”

In spite of these overwhelming facts, NCDs make headlines only in cases of ‘sudden death’. 

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