The Bahamas and non-communicable diseases

No one could blame Chairman of the Free National Movement Dr. Duane Sands, if, after reading last week’s health news headlines, he was to use a quote attributed to US Hall of Famer Yogi Berra: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

Four years ago, when the World Health Organization (WHO) STEPS Survey on The Bahamas was first released, Sands, the then-minister of health, warned that unhealthy lifestyles were impacting our mental health, reducing our quality of physical well-being and sending us to early graves.

Now, our newspaper headlines make it all new again.

Sands’ 2019 statements echoed Bahamian positions advanced at the September 2007 regional summit of CARICOM’s Heads of Government on chronic non-communicable disease (NCDs) held in Trinidad and Tobago and later reiterated at the September 2011 UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs addressed by most CARICOM heads including the Bahamian prime minister.

Work by the WHO followed including the development of the STEPS program to collect, analyze and disseminate data on WHO member countries.

Our Ministry of Health undertook to implement strategies to enhance community health services and to improve research and evaluation mechanisms to better measure the health and wellness of the nation.

Last week, Prime Minister Philip Davis and Minister of Health and Wellness Dr. Michael Darville both declared that based on the 2019 survey, The Bahamas is facing a health crisis.

The study was executed in 2019 and published in 2022. This delay was the result of shifting priorities due to Hurricane Dorian and the COVID-19 pandemic, the minister said. The pandemic could mean that the health profile has worsened even further.

It is generally accepted that not only in The Bahamas but internationally, many individuals concerned about COVID-19 exposures, postponed or delayed treatments of some chronic conditions – many NCDs like diabetes, cancer, hypertension — to the detriment of their health and their lives. Further, children’s immunizations suffered and, shut off from schools, their physical activities lagged.

The prime minister and minister of health were reacting to four-year-old data. More recent data is certain to reveal a deteriorated, more alarming state of affairs because we know that in addition to the reluctance of some to pursue treatment during the pandemic, others were prevented from doing so as clinics and hospitals closed to everything except for emergencies and/or pandemic-related illnesses.

It is reassuring to learn that the Ministry of Health and Wellness is now launching a new campaign to raise awareness and promote increased individual responsibility.

A renewed campaign reminding Bahamians of the dangers of our unhealthy practices can assist. Similarly, targeted government interventions, whether removing value-added tax on fresh fruit, vegetables and other health enhancing foods, would also, no doubt, be helpful.

We believe that while government intervention is appropriate in identifying and publicizing the problem, and in developing and implementing policies to promote positive alternatives, the government cannot dictate personal behaviors. Positive change is within the control of every Bahamian.

In any event, The Bahamas government, and by extension the Bahamian taxpayer, should not be burdened by the litany of NCDs that are being perpetuated in the Bahamian population because of poor personal choices: high blood pressure, diabetes, coronary and kidney ailments and certain cancers among the most common.

Children being fed a daily diet of traditional high carbohydrate meals based on rice, grits, potato, macaroni and fried sausage, other meats or fish topped with sugar and salt-laden fast-food snacks and overly sweet drinks grow into adult medical nightmares.

It is urgent, therefore, that archaic social stereotypical behaviors be singled out as unacceptable; these must change.

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