Sun | Jun 26, 2022

Kristen Gyles | The fight against lifestyle diseases

Published:Friday | May 20, 2022 | 12:07 AM
In the real world, of which Jamaica may or may not be a part, fluffy is the roadway to obesity.
In the real world, of which Jamaica may or may not be a part, fluffy is the roadway to obesity.

Jamaica recorded its first COVID-19 case in March 2020. More than two years and roughly 135,000 cases later, we are now going through what is supposedly the fifth wave of the pandemic. Unfortunately, it’s just more of the same: “Wear your mask!”, “Get vaccinated!”, “Keep your distance!” etc. While these messages are important, there is one critical piece of advice that seems to have been missing from the recurring COVID-19 prevention sermons.

Lifestyle matters. Lifestyle matters because it largely determines whether the individual will be impacted by lifestyle disease, which largely determines success levels in fighting COVID-19. It would seem as though COVID-19 is largely able to flex its muscles on persons with comorbidities. If that is the case, our focus is woefully off-target.

The focus seems to have been on getting the entire population to act contrary to social and biological norms, through the good old-fashioned fearmongering and guilt-tripping. This has not been working despite the very costly efforts that have been employed. You see, all the many rebroadcasts of television and radio advertisements featuring catchy jingles that will hopefully get stuck in our heads have got stuck in our heads. We’ve seen and heard them – many, many times. By now, everyone has heard that they should wear a mask, get vaccinated and keep their distance. Most persons who are not following the protocols just don’t care. The expensive marketing campaigns are not reaching them.

The virus is not one that significantly affects the entire population, and even if it was, we are yet to see evidence that the entire population would care. Therefore, unless the police will be tasked with walking from street to street, beating all recalcitrant citizens into compliance, the entire population will never all behave in the desired manner. For this reason, a more targeted focus on the vulnerable and those who actually want to be protected from the virus is more practical.

NEED TO BE ENCOURAGED

There is a lot that people can do to protect themselves, but, unfortunately, they need to be encouraged.

Some estimates suggest that as many as one in five people globally have at least one underlying health condition that could increase the risk of death from COVID-19. In one cross-sectional study done by the CDC between March 2020 and March 2021, of the 540,667 hospitalised US-based COVID-19 patients included in the study, almost 95 per cent had at least one underlying medical condition. Hypertension and diabetes were two of the most prevalent.

To ‘Jamaicanise’ the discussion a bit, data coming from our health ministry suggests that persons with comorbidities are 100 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those without comorbidities.

The fight against COVID-19, therefore, can’t be independent of the fight against lifestyle diseases.

There is also typically much talk about the elderly being predisposed to severe illness and death from COVID-19. While this is true, it is partly because older people tend to be the primary sufferers of the same lifestyle diseases. The immune system also tends to weaken with age, making it more difficult for the elderly body to withstand external threats. Lifestyle matters here, too.

Health Minister Dr Christopher Tufton, last year, in discussing the major projects in the pipeline to address non-communicable diseases, mentioned that 70 per cent of persons who die annually in Jamaica die from a non-communicable disease. So, lifestyle diseases are not just horrible when coupled with COVID-19. They are horrible all by themselves. As an example, heart disease, the world’s number one killer, is responsible for roughly 16 per cent of deaths annually.

One would think this tragedy would be the talk of the town, but it is not. If it were the talk of the town, we would actually have to think about it and act on it. And unfortunately, it is easier to think about COVID-19 and how all the unmasked, unvaccinated persons are killers than to consider putting the pizza shops out of business.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that in order to reduce the likelihood of chronic illness, persons should quit smoking, avoid drinking too much alcohol and get screened to detect the onset of chronic diseases early on. Persons can also help to prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity among other chronic illnesses through improvements in their diet and through increased physical activity.

ROADWAY TO OBESITY

In Jamaica, it is a good thing to be fluffy. In the real world, of which Jamaica may or may not be a part, fluffy is the roadway to obesity. Obesity affects a significant portion of the Jamaican population and is a gateway to many other lifestyle diseases. Lifestyle habits that perpetuate obesity are the real killers here.

Funny enough, I remember late last year, a private sector vaccination drive which tried to bribe unvaccinated Jamaicans with fried chicken combos and free phone credit in exchange for them getting jabbed. The jury is still out on whether improved health was actually the objective.

So, to state what might not necessarily be obvious, what I am suggesting is that the marketing surrounding COVID-19 prevention and treatment include more of the “Get moving” and “Eat right” messages. Most of the messages being preached currently have been heard and digested. Some of the factors contributing to infection are also not fully within the remit of people to control.

To expound, while I can distance myself from others, I can’t guarantee that I will never touch a COVID-19 contaminated door handle. The COVID-19 protocols offer significant protection but are nothing more than a bulletproof vest for a bullet that has the potential of striking you in the head. The most important messages shouldn’t be left out.

Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to kristengyles@gmail.com.