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Prevention better than cure

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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I have always admired Dr Christopher Tufton and the drive he has for his assigned ministry. Dr Tufton is a thinker and a visionary and I would hope the prime minister would keep him very close. In the face of much ridicule, Dr Tufton embarked on a campaign to revolutionise the Jamaican society and their lifestyle choices and this is commendable. The argument of some is that he is wasting precious time running around town when he should be addressing the ailing health sector — a view that could only be described as narrow-minded and shallow. Addressing lifestyle choices and campaigning for behaviour change will in return impact the health sector.

To put matters squarely, the Sunday Gleaner reported some startling data in the story 'Digging graves with knives and forks' — Many Jamaicans are eating themselves to death warns expert, according to the report, “There is more concern that Jamaicans are eating themselves into an early grave, with statistics indicating that 67 per cent of deaths in the country are linked to poor diet.”

Dr Tufton is clearly on to something with the 'Jamaica Moves' campaign, and the public is buying in. We are also seeing more 5Ks, particularly in the rural parts, and for this I am happy. With a percentage as high as 67, the entire Jamaica should be on the move. The report states further that, “Data indicates that heart diseases and hypertension account for 23 per cent of those who end up in the morgue annually, while cancer accounts for 21 per cent. Another 13 per cent of the population succumbs to diabetes, while 10 per cent die from stroke.”

Most if not all of the ailments listed are due to lifestyle choices. The treatment of which will have adverse effects on our health sector and by extension our economy. Professor Fitzroy Henry, professor of public health nutrition at the University of Technology, Jamaica, posits: “Left unchecked, obesity and its consequences will overwhelm the financial and human capacity of the health sector and ultimately undermine the productive capacity of Jamaica.” It is therefore clear that one has to employ preventative measures to this growing problem.

My good friend, Lanvell Blake, summed it up nicely, “The Jamaica Moves concept is to create a change of lifestyle to focus individual attention on our own role in preventing illnesses by taking certain basics steps of eating healthy and exercise daily.” The greater point is that the Jamaica Moves campaign is primarily about preventative health care. Oftentimes in Jamaica we talk about the scarcity of hospital beds and the need for medication, but we rarely speak about preventative measures.

Professor Henry argues that, “Many of even the obese persons and those suffering from chronic disease are not willing, ready or able to alter their habits. This means that expensive health promotion programmes with strategies that assume most persons are ready to adopt a healthy dietary habit are likely to fail. A different strategy is required for this reluctant group because some do not recognise they have a problem, or even denies the negative effects of their existing dietary habits.”

We cannot seriously intend to address issues of health without grappling with the realities of inequity. Many of the obese people are so because of poverty, and will not change until we address the unequal distribution of income in this country. Families living on the poverty line have limited food budgets and choices and must often stretch supplies toward the end of the month before Programme for Advancement Through Health and Education cheques arrive. This leads to unhealthy behaviours in several ways: Families choose high-fat foods dense with energy because these foods are more affordable and last longer than fresh vegetables and fruits and lean meats and fish. Poor families often live in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in which healthy foods are hard to find. Instead of large supermarkets, poor neighbourhoods have a disproportionate number of fast food chains and small food stores providing cheap, high-fat foods. Economic insecurity, such as trouble paying bills or rent, leads to stress, and people often cope by eating high-fat, sugary foods. Undoubtedly, the Government has some structural and policy work to do to mitigate against these unfavourable circumstances.

I would advise Dr Tufton to have a talk with Minister Shahine Robinson, minister of labour and social security, to see what solutions they can proffer. I am also pleased to see the Ministry of Education having the conversations about healthy lifestyle in our schools with the call for greater inclusion of physical activity in the curriculum. I would wish to amplify the voices calling for the inclusion of fruits on menus in our schools.

We have to find ingenious ways of addressing the issue, and I think Jamaica moves is a good start. I am sure most of us grew up with the old-time saying that “Prevention better than cure”. Well, here we have a minister who is working on prevention. Minister Tufton is a minister with a vision. I strongly believe that he is working to overhaul the health sector; yes, it might be slow, but I believe if continued he will get it done.

Lorenzo Smith is an educator with interests in social justice. Send comments to the Observer or to lorenzsmitt@gmail.com.

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