Some 52 million people are forecast to die annually by 2030 from the current annual deaths exceeding 36 million, if non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are not controlled effectively. This warning statement was delivered by the Minister of Health Dr. Abdullah al-Rabeah at the international conference on lifestyle and non-communicable diseases in the Arab world and the Middle East that was held in Riyadh recently. The Kingdom has pledged to support regional and international initiatives to combat NCDs. We are now globally committed to upgrade our medical services and scientific research to meet the standards of international initiatives to curb the disturbing growing rates of NCDs.
The minister called on all stakeholders to redouble efforts to combat the growing prevalence of NCDs. It would be a shame if these calls fell on deaf ears and serious action to promote healthy living was not given serious attention. All government sectors, including civil society and the private sector will be put to the test to demonstrate strong, sustained professional leadership to set national targets for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. Our present record of medical services is very poor and it is time to address our failings.
The Ministry of Health initiative to raise health awareness and promote healthy living is a major development that needs support and encouragement by all government sectors and professionals in the country. Medical researchers, the media, social scientists and activists are called upon to work together to raise public awareness about the importance of the characteristics of a healthy lifestyle, which are, mainly, not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, following a healthy diet, having adequate leisure time and engaging in physical activity. It is very disturbing to see how healthy lifestyles are ignored and not recognized in our society today. Children often eat at fast food restaurants that serve food with high levels of fat, sugar and sodium. Shisha and cigarette smoking is prevalent even among the young, and physical inactivity and obesity are also prevalent nationwide. We need to see immediate implementation of government initiatives to modify such detrimental lifestyles to support the prevention and control of NCDs.
The American Cancer Society has reissued its guides for nutrition and physical activity during and after cancer treatment. These reports should serve as resources for healthcare providers, patient advocates, and other stakeholders to improve the health and well-being of this rapidly expanding and high risk population.
The prevalent physical inactivity among the majority of Saudi citizens has had negative implications for health. Negative lifestyle behaviors that have been associated with the development of chronic diseases, specifically heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes need to addressed. According to the most recent studies there is a high prevalence of physical inactivity among Saudi children and adults alike.
The decision to allocate a large budget to promote sports and physical education in Saudi schools is an important development that can protect our children from NCDs. Hopefully all schools nationwide will soon include physical education in their curriculum and be provided with adequate sports facilities so that students can exercise and play sports. Medical research has proven that physical education and sports in schools is beneficial for both children and for the educational systems. They are necessary for the development of children’s fundamental motor skills and physical fitness, which can influence their physical well-being at a later stage in life.
They also can support the development of social skills and social behavior, self-esteem and pro-school attitudes, and, in certain circumstances, academic and cognitive development. Physical education in our schools should be managed by committed and trained teachers and coaches; it should also be supported by informed parents, who can significantly influence change and provide the desired healthy lifestyle for our children.
Inefficiency, red tape and bureaucracy should not sabotage the initiatives of the Ministry of Education.
Communication and information technology could also be utilized to spread better health awareness and nutritional education. The media can play a greater role in changing the prevalent behavior and mindset that is detrimental to the well-being of all members of society. Activists, opinion leaders, bloggers and social media users can influence change and address the reckless and negative attitudes that are harmful to our future generation.
The international conference on lifestyle came out with major recommendations to promote the prevention and control of NCDs. The participants urged the need to share strategies, tools and cost-effective interventions with other countries in the region to improve healthcare for non-communicable diseases. They also called for building capacity and adopting a research agenda to provide essential access to treatment and care. This will require funding and assigning some of our best specialists who can contribute to this global cause and national goal.
The international community has recognized that the control of non-communicable diseases is central to progress and economic growth.
A more effective national policy to address the social and economic detriments to health, and a more vigorous campaign to enhance the role of health education in contemporary society is the need of the hour.
(Samar Fatany is a radio broadcaster and writer. This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Sept. 22, 2012)