Magazine article New African

Diseases of Affluence Taking Their Toll

Magazine article New African

Diseases of Affluence Taking Their Toll

Article excerpt

Africa's recent economic growth has created an emerging middle class that has adopted many of the West's most damaging lifestyle choices, and sadly diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular conditions and stroke are on the increase. Stephen Williams looks at how Africa is confronting its health challenges, old and new.

FOR YEARS, COMBATING DISEASE in Africa has been perceived as being primarily the battle against HIV/Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, but the continent is home to nine of the most prevalent of the so-called "neglected tropical diseases" (NTDs), and in recent years what is referred to as the "diseases of affluence". And help to fight them has come from Dr Harold Varmus, one of the new scientists on President Barack Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.


Varmus is a Nobel Laureate who won the 1989 prize for his research in cancer genetics. Soon after joining Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, he asked the new president to endorse a plan by the US Institute of Medicine to double annual US support for global health to $15bn by 2012.

Regarding Africa, Dr Varmus says: "Simply treating HIV/Aids is not enough. If you look at the general layout of health problems in developing countries, you have a large amount of persistent childhood respiratory illnesses and diarrhoea, and there are many neglected tropical diseases like hookworm and bilharzia."

Diseases of affluence

There is one other issue that Dr Varmus says should be addressed as a matter of urgency. Africa's rapidly growing urban conurbations now face a major health challenge - the onset of ever-greater numbers of cases of chronic diseases. "Increasingly, [the challenge is] chronic diseases. The improvements we have made in health are allowing many people to live into their 50s and 60s, but we are not doing anything about serious diseases like diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and stroke."

In fact, rather than infectious diseases, it is the so-called "lifestyle diseases" that are now beginning to take their toll in Africa. The paradox is that Africa's recent economic growth has created an emerging middle class that has adopted many of the West's most damaging lifestyle choices.

As well as smoking and the excessive drinking of alcohol, a sedentary lifestyle has been encouraged with wider car ownership and leisure hours spent watching computer screens and TVs. In addition, well-heeled Africans are increasingly eating Western-type fast-food diets - heavy in saturated fats, salt and sugar.

In cities such as Nairobi, Johannesburg, Accra or Cairo, fast-food chain outlets are proliferating and are popular with office workers grabbing a quick lunchtime meal. Many will, on their way home from work, also buy a takeaway for their evening meal in front of the TV, forsaking traditional African diets that tend to be more nutritionally balanced.

With the possible exception of smoking, there is little public perception in Africa of how critical are lifestyle choices. Consequently, although accurate data is difficult to find, the available evidence suggests that in Africa's urban areas obesity is an ever more serious problem, and the incidence of respiratory diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and other chronic diseases is increasing rapidly.

Research suggests that chronic diseases of affluence in urban Africa now account for around half of all premature adult deaths, and that figure is set to rise to 7 in 10 deaths by 2020.

Public information campaigns are perhaps the most effective means of confronting the problem of chronic diseases of affluence. In the West, these campaigns have at least slowed the incidence of cardiovascular disease even if the incidence of diabetes is increasing rapidly. However, whether the onset of heart disease or diabetes is solely due to poor diet and lack of exercise is being questioned. …

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