With the rate of non-communicable diseases in the developing world growing, what can be done to alleviate the problem? AboutKidsHealth, leading online provider of children’s health information, reports on possible solutions.
In the heart of the densely packed streets of Dhaka in Bangladesh lie two of the country’s largest international middle-schools, Heed and Maple Leaf School. Reputed for their high academic standards, the schools are the most popular and populous in the country, despite one obvious peculiarity: each is missing a playground.
It was a discovery that alarmed physician and epidemiologist, Dr. AKM Alamgir, during his research on childhood obesity on school children in urban Dhaka. He spent the last eleven years investigating the social causes of chronic illnesses, mainly high blood pressure, in Bangladesh. He says that lack of playtime robs these children of much needed physical exercise – which is one of the reasons why over 18% of the children in grades 1 to 4 at these schools are overweight.
The kids also often eat in the school cafeteria, which houses an alarming number of fast-food restaurants. In a country where there is a growing prevalence of high blood pressure among adults in their late twenties, Dr. Alamgir says the childhood lifestyle is priming these kids for developing chronic conditions when they get older.
According the World Health Organization, the rate of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) – diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular diseases, and chronic pulmonary diseases – are skyrocketing in the global south. Dubbed the “slow-motion catastrophe”, NCDs now account for over 60% of deaths worldwide.
One reason NCDs are on the rise is that we are getting better at treating the communicable disease that plagues many parts of the global South. “Because of intensive interventions, communicable diseases [such as smallpox and polio] will be controlled in developing countries,” explains Dr. Alamgir.
Along with this, the influx of migration from rural to urban settings means more people are using more sedentary means of transport. Together, these changes all cause an inevitable shift in diet and lack staples of healthy eating.
Furthermore, mounting evidence now shows that children who are undernourished in the first two years of life, and who rapidly gain weight later in childhood or adolescence, are at a higher risk of chronic disease related to nutrition. “We now know that the key time to try to recover [nutritionally] is during the first two years of life,” says Dr. Bassani. “We want them to gain weight, but in the right way.”
Unsurprisingly, the issue is also heavily politicized. Globalization has creating more open access to the fast-food conglomerates that profit off unhealthy gluttony. “Like the tobacco [lobby], the food industry is also a very powerful lobby.”
The prescription for preventing NCDs is straightforward: don’t smoke; eat your veggies; exercise. And the earlier you start, the better. “Prudent dietary habit and increment of physical activity in any form can retard the progression of non-communicable diseases,” says Dr. Amirgar, a fact that can often and easily be forgotten.
“Changing human behaviour is difficult. It’s not as easy as taking a pill,” adds Dr. Bassani. “You have to change the way you live,” he says, a message that is now an axiom in the prevention of NCDs.
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