Lifestyle illnesses: Zim’s growing burden

Mirirai Nsingo
Anxiety grips Sizakele, who has just been diagnosed with diabetes. The 45-year-old is yet to understand the condition he has been diagnosed with but the thought of changing his lifestyle is what terrifies him.

He has been a heavy drinker who has also not been conscious of his diet, now he has been told to stop taking alcohol until he is in control of the condition, he has also been told to be conscious of what he eats and emphasis is on natural traditional foods.

“I loved my alcohol and was not conscious of the selection of food, I would eat whatever came my way. Now I have been told if I’m to manage this, then I will have to stop alcohol until I’m in control and also maintain a healthy diet with more natural foods.

“For me it is such a task but now I have to change my lifestyle if I’m to beat diabetes,” says the 45-year-old from Highfield, Harare.

He fears succumbing to diabetes, one of the top four non-communicable diseases (NCDs) haunting Zimbabwe and have become leading killer diseases globally in recent years.

Diabetes falls under the four leading NCDs category along with cardiovascular diseases, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases often referred to as “lifestyle diseases” because they are largely linked to the way people live their lives and to surrounding environmental factors.

Long considered diseases of the West and often associated with the urban and affluent in society, NCDs have crept silently into many corners in Africa, remaining relatively unnoticed as governments and the international community focus on combating communicable diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV.

Non-communicable diseases have overtaken HIV as the leading killer disease with health experts citing NCDs as the major leading causes of death in people living with HIV.

Sizakele is not alone in this predicament as Zimbabwe has witnessed a glowing burden in NCDs incidences over the years with the Deputy Director for NCDs in the Ministry of Health and Child Care, Dr Justice Mudavanhu stating that lifestyles have largely contributed to the rise of most of the NCDs.

“Zimbabwe has been facing a double burden of disease conditions of infectious and non-infectious yet there has been so much bias towards tuberculosis, HIV, malaria while the country is witnessing an epidemiological and demographic transition from infectious to non-infectious conditions.

“Lifestyles such as diet, alcohol, smoking and physical inactivity are the top leading modified risk factors that have largely contributed to the growing burden. Conditions such as cancers, cardiovascular, diabetes and chronic respiratory are the top four leading non-communicable diseases,” says Dr Mudavanhu.

Dr Mudavanhu believes the country’s response to this emerging public health threat requires a multi-sectorial approach which should be coordinated.

He cites that issues of lack of funding are a huge impediment in the NCDs response.

“NCDs to be tackled needs a multi-sectorial approach and it is not just the domain of the Ministry of Health and Child Care but all sectors should come together and fight this growing burden that the country can only ignore at its own peril. Everyone has to come on board to tackle this burden.

“For example we need the Ministry of Agriculture to play a pivotal role as we advocate for a healthy diet that consists of natural foods which we can grow as a nation.

“When it comes to lifestyle, agriculture has to be an active sector in the fight as what people eat has had a major impact in the rise of these NCDs. We have fast foods that are very popular and look fashionable but these are our killing the nation. So much can be done at community level to start creating awareness on the need to eat natural foods than fast foods.

The community has a right to know about the growing burden of NCDs.

“What you can notice is that when it comes to resources, financial and others are biased towards infectious. Donors and even the private sector is quick to mobilise resources whenever there is a distress call for cholera but this has not been the case with NCDs, funding has been a major challenge in the response.”

He further added that smoking and excessive intake of alcohol were also among Zimbabwe’s problems that have largely contributed to this growing burden as he also emphasised the need for the nation to be physically active  as a way of reducing these risk factors.

“There is nothing profitable from smoking  that can come from smoking yet it is a high risk factor for NCDs. Excessive alcohol intake is something that we should deal with as a nation by coming up with an alcohol policy. Alcohol is not only a risk factor for NCDs but it is also the reason why the country continue to record road accidents.

“There is need to also take seriously issues of physical inactivity and grow a culture of promoting physical activities as it is also a serious risk factors. City fathers should prioritise spaces for recreational facilities as they plan and also ensure that they are cycle tracks and pedestrian roads which are use friendly so that people can walk and cycle where possible, which is a good way of exercising.

A 2017 Ministry of Health and Child Care report indicates a rise in cases of conditions like hypertension, diabetes and mental health in Zimbabwe with a total 1 028 810 hypertension, 120 609 diabetes and 154 745 mental illness patients registered and regularly receiving health care services

NCDs are now the leading cause of death in most regions of the world, accounting for up to 70 percent of all deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). In 2012, for example, the diseases killed 38 million people, of whom 80 percent were from developing countries, including those in Africa. About half of these people died prematurely—before the age of 70.

Dr Mudavanhu believes the cost of not doing anything as a country will affect the productivity of this country in a serious way than any other diseases has ever done and can only ignore this rising burden at its own peril.