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Chronic diseases killing cops

By KIMONE THOMPSON Features editor — Sunday thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, October 14, 2012    

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MORE than half of the policemen and women who have died in the past decade were claimed by chronic diseases including hypertension, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Data from the Jamaica Police Federation shows that of the 460 cops on their members' register who passed away between 2001 and June 1 this year, 247 died as a result of chronic illnesses, also called lifestyle or non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The remaining 213 were either slain by gunmen or were killed in motor vehicle crashes.

An additional 10 policemen died between June and September, with two of that number slain in the line of duty.

"The most common ones are complications related to diabetes, renal conditions, heart conditions, and hypertensive conditions," head of the Federation Sergeant Raymond Wilson told the Jamaica Observer.

"We're treating hundreds with diabetes, kidney problems, cancer and a lot of other chronic illnesses. It speaks to the bad eating habits, it speaks to the long hours, it speaks to the hazards of the job, such as inhaling the scent of dead bodies all day long, inhaling drugs and chemicals. A lot of police officers are suffering," the Federation said.

It is not uncommon for police personnel to work 12-hour shifts, which, depending on the duty they are assigned, do not lend themselves to eating well or on time, nor does it facilitate adequate rest. The effects of poor nutrition, a lack of adequate rest and inactivity on one's health are well documented.

The World Health Organisation says that NCDs account for the majority of deaths worldwide and cite physical inactivity and poor nutrition as contributing risk factors to many of them, including mental health disorders. Nutritionists also agree that the same criteria that puts one at risk for developing high blood pressure also contribute to the development of diabetes — fatty diets rich in salt and processed sugars.

The World Bank, in a 2007 document available on the Internet, said that the burden of NCDs in the Caribbean had escalated, "with five times as many people dying from NCDs as from all other illnesses combined". It added: "Ten times more people were dying from NCDs than from HIV/AIDS.

"NCDs represent not only the major causes of death, but are responsible for the greatest share of the burden of disease in the Caribbean region (65 per cent) [as] the four leading causes of death in the Caribbean in 2000 were all NCDs — heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. These four conditions accounted for 47 per cent of deaths in 1980 and 51 per cent in 2000," it said.

There was no breakdown of the Federation's figures according to specific illnesses; they only showed the total number of JCF deaths each year and the percentage of those which were a result of NCDs. They show that a total of 39 active cops passed away in 2001. Of that number, 21 died from chronic diseases.

In 2002, the total deaths was 46, with 22 of them resulting from lifestyle diseases. The year 2003 saw 44 deaths, with 54 per cent or 24 attributed to NCDs. The respective totals for 2004 were 29 and 12; for 2005 they were 47 and 21; for 2006 they were 39 and 23; in 2007 the figures were 45 and 20; the 2008 tally stood at 35 and 19; in 2009 it was 50 and 30; 2010 had 44 and 21; 2011 accounted for 28 and 21; and up to June 1, 2012, the numbers were 14 and 13.

Just last month, sergeant of police Leachman Gurdon, 49, collapsed while on duty at the Matilda's Corner Police Station. The coroner ruled that the cause of his death was a heart attack.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer late last week, Gurdon's widow Charmaine said that the family was not aware of the former cop having a heart condition. She said, however, that he was previously diagnosed with hypertension and Type II diabetes and was taking medication to control them. Hypertension, commonly called high blood pressure, and diabetes, which results from high levels of sugar in the blood, are risk factors for heart disease.

"We found out that he was diabetic last year, but hypertension is in his family so he always had it but he didn't have a problem with it until 2009 when he went to do a minor surgery and they told him they couldn't do it because his pressure was too high," she said.

Another indication that all was not well with the policeman was the mild stroke he suffered two years ago.

Charmaine Gurdon steered away from blaming her late husband's job as the reason for his diabetes on account of poor eating habits, but the cop's brother, Orville, said it was a possibility. He didn't go into details but said his brother was stressed out.

"He wanted a break from work because he was under a little work stress," the brother, also a cop, told the Sunday Observer. "Is a man weh hardly take leave and mi always a say to him 'tek yuh leave and chill out' cause him wi have tings pon him head.

Orville, who described his late brother as one who internalised things that bothered him, said the late cop last took leave two years ago to recuperate from the stroke.

"I'm a happy-go-lucky person; I don't let things bother me; I don't let things stress me, but my brother was the flip side of me," he said.

Gurdon, a former sub-officer in charge of transport at St Andrew Central Division, was buried last Sunday.

A policeman assigned to the JCF's traffic department told the Jamaica Observer that "most police are either diabetic or hypertensive".

For that, the policeman, who said that he falls among the hypertensive lot and has to be taking medication to regulate his blood pressure, blamed the general stresses of the job for his condition.

"It's the poor eating habits, long hours and little sleep," said the policeman who asked that his name not be used, given the JCF's media policy which only permits statements to come from the Constabulary Communication Network or the director of communication.

"If you work 12, 13 or 14 hours per day, you have to leave home with enough time to get to work at least 15 minutes before the prescribed time. And say it takes you two hours to get to and from work, that's up to 18 hours per day. You end up missing dinner, missing lunch, so we must have ulcer and other stomach problems... and police work six days a week, with only one day off. Six days a week," he said.

The Federation's Wilson said that the group, in tandem with the Force's Medical Services and Human Resources branches, is now drafting a policy to make annual medical tests mandatory for personnel 40 years old and over.

"It's geared at detecting illnesses before they reach the state where they are no longer treatable. The goal is early detection and early treatment and that will cause police officers to live longer," the Federation said.

There was no indication last week about the progress of the deliberations, or when the policy is expected to take effect.

When contacted for an update, the Medical Services Branch said that clinical director and consultant psychiatrist Dr George Leveridge was off the island and Jereine Singh, the paramedical director, deferred her comment, saying that she would first have to get clearance from the police high command.

TABLE 1

Deaths of JCF members from 2001-2012

Year Numbers claimed by NCDs Total Deaths Percentage Deaths

2001 21 39 54

2002 22 46 48

2003 24 44 54

2004 12 29 41

2005 21 47 45

2006 23 39 59

2007 20 45 44

2008 19 35 54

2009 30 50 60

2010 21 44 48

2011 21 28 75

2012 -6-1 13 14 93

TOTAL 247 460 54

(Source: The Jamaica Constabulary Force)

TABLE 2

Top ten causes of death, all ages, Jamaica, 2002

Causes Deaths (%) Years of life lost (%)

All causes 100 100

Cerebrovascular disease 18 11

Diabetes mellitus 11 8

Ischemic heart disease 10 6

Hypertensive heart disease 6 4

Lower respiratory infections 4 4

HIV/AIDS 4 9

Stomach cancer 3 2

Nephritis and nephrosis 3 3

Perinatal condition

s 2 8

Breast cancer 2 3

(Source: World Health Organisation 2002/World Bank)

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