When the risk to our health is simply too great

The health of a nation arguably has some bearing on the wealth of a nation. A healthy nation has citizens who, for the most part, are in good physical and mental shape which makes them capable of producing at a high level.

By all accounts, Barbados is becoming an increasingly unhealthy nation as a rising incidence of lifestyle-related chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) takes a heavy toll on the population and uses up a sizeable chunk of public spending on health care.

The country got another reminder last Thursday when Senior Medical Officer of Health Dr Kenneth George told a Barbados Workers Union-organized forum that NCDs had reached crisis levels with 80 to 90 per cent of the adult population having at least one risk factor.

The rising unhealthiness of the population is an issue which receives scant consideration in public discussion about declining productivity. However, it cannot be disputed that if persons are unwell, they will be incapable of producing at a high level.

Noting that the risk factors can be changed easily, Dr George said it was critical, not only to have intervention by Government, but also for Barbadians to take responsibility for reducing risk factors such as obesity that lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and the like.

Diabetes has already earned Barbados the unflattering designation of “amputation capital” because of the extraordinarily high number of persons losing limbs due to poor circulation and other diabetic complications.

Generally, Barbadians do not seem to be taking the warnings seriously and, for many, it is life as usual. There also seems to be a view among some Barbadians that curing illness is more the responsibility of the medical professional and the pharmaceutical industry than their own at a personal level.

However, the old saying reminds us that prevention is always better than cure. Given the seriousness of the crisis, the time has come for the authorities to move beyond just issuing warnings about the consequences of certain lifestyle habits towards more decisive intervention in the national interest.

In this regard, a recent move by a province in Vanuatu, a Pacific small island nation state, offers some important food for thought. Torba Province, which is a collection of islands, has banned the importation of Western junk food such as candy, cookies, and rice.

Authorities in Torba have decided instead that the province, with a population of 10,000, will sustain itself solely with homegrown food — yams, taro, pawpaw, pineapple, fish, crabs, shellfish, etc. — with the aim of becoming Vanuatu’s first fully organic province by 2020.

One of the benefits of living in today’s “global village” is that instant access to information allows one country with a problem to look at how other countries are grappling with the same issue and, wherever possible, to draw on best practices which can be adapted to the local situation.

Perhaps, this Vanuatu province offers a lesson to Barbados in terms of the decisiveness of local authorities in moving to prevent the undermining of public health which they were seeing in other islands within the same country where junk foods are easily available.

“We are Vanuatu’s most isolated province and so far our health has stayed pretty good because of that but we want to continue to be healthy,” community leader and tourism boss Father Luc Dini told the Guardian newspaper.

“In other provinces that have adopted western diets, you see pretty young girls but when they smile they have rotten teeth, because the sugar has broken down their teeth. We don’t want that to happen here and we don’t want to develop the illnesses that come with a western junk food diet,” the Anglican priest added.

Local chefs are supporting the policy. Under the first phase which the authorities rolled out earlier this month, tourist establishments began serving only locally-grown food. Legislation to be introduced over the next two years will ban all imported foods. The jury, however, remains out on how the laws will affect alcohol imports.

“It’s a noble goal, and one could have a measurable impact on locals’ health. The promise of eating only local, organic food is also sure to attract a certain variety of mindful tourist, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” the Guardian article noted.

It added: “As travel becomes easier and the need for cross-cultural understanding grows more apparent, legislating an appreciation for local food is both a smart tourism move and a way for Torba to preserve its identity
and culture.”

Food for thought indeed!

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