DESPITE a steady reduction in maternal deaths over the past few years, assistant representative at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Melissa McNeil-Barrett, believes the country could see further improvement by tackling non-communicable diseases (NCDs).
"In the past few years, the causes of maternal death and morbidity have been linked to hypertension and diabetes and so on being developed during pregnancy," McNeil-Barrett pointed out during a recent Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange at the newspaper's Beechwood Avenue offices.
McNeil-Barrett said that while most maternal deaths were caused in the past by issues such as haemorrhaging, the UNFPA has been witnessing a shift over the past few years where NCDs are now the primary causes. She said this has remained the case even though antenatal coverage is extremely high in Jamaica.
"The women do go (to antenatal clinic), but then sometimes there needs to be greater attention placed on these diseases during pregnancies," she said.
"Hypertension and diabetes are normally linked to women being overweight during pregnancy, so the gestational diabetes develops, but all this is linked to the whole thing of obesity and hypertension," she pointed out.
One of the ways to tackle the problem, McNeil-Barrett feels, would be to create more awareness about these conditions, however, even that would probably not result in a drastic reductions as, "information and education do not necessarily translate into behaviour. So you have the information and people know that you should eat healthy and so on, but with the busy schedules, people don't."
She said some women argue that eating healthy is sometimes too expensive and so unhealthy meals are prepared instead which lead to these NCDs. Even so, she believes there are strong signs which suggest that Jamaicans are becoming more health-conscious.
The issue of NCDs has become a major concern for health officials over the past few years. Health minister Dr Fenton Ferguson said NCDs were costing the country US$170 million annually to treat. NCDs such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, strokes, heart and other respiratory diseases were the causes of more than 50 per cent of deaths in Jamaica. Of concern, too, was the fact that women reported higher rates of NCDs.
McNeil-Barrett believes it's important to get more obstetricians who also specialise in the treatment of NCDs to treat women during pregnancy in order to further reduce Jamaica's maternal deaths. In the meantime, she said her organisation would continue to partner with the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) to address the problem.
She noted that they have already started doing work, "in terms of supporting the ministry of health and the government to better manage maternal health patients by working with women, men and children to make them more aware of the importance of prenatal care during pregnancy, and as well as to strengthen the health system to deliver higher quality care to women who do enter the health system to capture and manage these complications that may result".
Meanwhile, PAHO's representative to Jamaica, Margareta Skold, said it is going to take a long while to tackle NCDs. She believes policymakers need to start focusing on putting various strategies in place to tackle the problem. Her group, she said, will be contributing to the NCDs National Committee which was formed a few months ago. She believes it is important to start educating people about obesity, diet and the need for physical activity.
"It's not that people don't want to, but we need to make sure that we create that environment at the community level, so that people can have access, and so that people can enjoy it," she said, while noting that the creation of Emancipation Park, for example, was an excellent idea.