• Monday, December 11, 2023
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Lifestyle diseases: a rising threat to public health in Africa

Lifestyle diseases: a rising threat to public health in Africa

Lifestyle disease is an umbrella term that refers to ailments primarily caused by the daily habits or unhealthy behaviours of people. Lifestyle diseases are associated with four modifiable lifestyle behaviours, including smoking, an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and alcohol consumption, that result in the development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Hence, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are commonly known as “lifestyle diseases” because they are largely linked to the day-to-day habits of people.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 41 million deaths are attributed to NCDs annually, which is equivalent to 74 percent of all deaths globally, thus making NCDs—primarily heart and lung diseases, cancers, and diabetes—the leading cause of death globally.

In the past, NCDs were regarded as diseases of the West and associated with an affluent lifestyle. However, today, this is largely no longer the case. While the government and international community focused on dealing with communicable diseases like malaria, HIV/AIDS, polio, and tuberculosis, NCDs have permeated many corners of Africa.

Of all NCD deaths, 77 percent occur in low- and middle-income countries, including Africa. The WHO has predicted that Africa will experience a 27 percent increase in deaths from NCDs over the next few years, and by 2030, NCDs are expected to become the leading cause of death in Africa, exceeding deaths caused by communicable, maternal, perinatal, and nutritional diseases combined.

Strategic partnerships are essential for the design and implementation of quality lifestyle disease interventions that adopt a primary healthcare approach and prioritise early detection and proper treatment

Lifestyle habits and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in Africa

Habits that detract people from activity and push them towards a sedentary routine can cause several health issues that lead to chronic non-communicable diseases with life threatening consequences. Although some risk factors for lifestyle diseases or NCDs cannot be controlled, such as age, gender, ethnicity, and heredity, many risk factors can be controlled, including diet and body weight, physical activity, sun exposure, smoking, and alcohol use. Taking charge of controllable risk factors may greatly decrease the chances of developing a lifestyle disease.

Unfortunately, studies show that a quarter of secondary school students (ages 13–15) in Zambia smoke or use tobacco products, while 24 percent of boys and 19 percent of girls in secondary schools in South Africa use tobacco products.

In Namibia, about 26 percent of boys and 21 percent of girls (ages 13–15) are alcohol users. With figures like these, there is little wonder why cases of NCDs are expected to surge over the next few years in Africa, as adolescence is typically when risky behaviours that set the stage for the later development of lifestyle diseases are established.

Impact of lifestyle diseases on Africa’s health systems

Of particular importance to the public health sector in Africa is that 30 percent of the African populace already have high blood pressure (140/90 mmHg) and are likely to develop other complications like stroke, coronary heart diseases, kidney diseases, visual impairments, etc., leading to increased disability and premature deaths in Africa.

In a continent where the availability of advanced diagnostics and drugs, intensive disability management, and prolonged care facilities are grossly inadequate, the consequences of this are not only devastating for the individuals affected but also for Africa’s health systems and socioeconomic development.

Africa’s healthcare systems are already overstretched by efforts to combat communicable diseases like malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS and poor maternal and child health. Hence, they lack the capacity to cope with a full-blown NCD epidemic.

It is therefore critical that concrete efforts are made to address the root causes of the surge of NCDs in Africa, with a major cause being the adoption of unhealthy lifestyle habits.

Strategies to curb lifestyle diseases in Africa

There are several low-cost solutions that can be implemented to reduce the common modifiable risk factors associated with lifestyle diseases. Health promotion and preventive health approaches are proven effective strategies for reducing disease burden with lower costs compared to the cost of NCD treatment.

Advocacy for individuals, particularly adolescents, to adopt healthy lifestyle choices is the simplest and cheapest way to prevent NCDs. Some examples of these healthy lifestyle choices include: healthy diets with more vegetables and fruits, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, and exercising.

However, NCD prevention and control cannot be done with diet control and increased physical activity alone. It requires action at multiple levels, with healthcare providers and governments as leaders, along with stronger healthcare systems and multi-stakeholder involvement.

Strategic partnerships are essential for the design and implementation of quality lifestyle disease interventions that adopt a primary healthcare approach and prioritise early detection and proper treatment. For example, Bloom Public Health, a private indigenous public health think-tank in Africa, partners with some African governments to develop contextual public health interventions that promote healthy lifestyles, disease detection, and prevention.

African governments also need to develop national policies with the goal of reducing exposure to risk factors for the diseases. These include policies that increase taxes and prices on tobacco products, alcoholic beverages, and sugary beverages, and place bans on tobacco and alcohol advertising.

In conclusion

Several lifestyle diseases or NCDs can be prevented by controlling the behavioural or lifestyle habits associated with those diseases, and because the roots of these habits often originate during the formative stages of life, it is especially important to start early in teaching important lessons concerning healthy living.