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Need to focus on on lifestyle diseases

Monday September 26 2011


The global burden of disease is shifting from infectious to non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

This trend has resulted in a rapid increase in chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis and cancer.

This disease burden is becoming heavier especially in developing countries, and is likely to cause major public health and economic crises in the near future.

Kenya has not been spared. Like many developing countries, it is currently facing a rapid epidemiological transition as a result of technological advancements that are changing lifestyle behaviours.

The transition has resulted in the creation of an “obesogenic” environment that encourages over-consumption of energy-dense foods coupled with a sedentary lifestyle and insufficient physical activity.

Consequently, obesity and associated morbidities are likely to be on the rise in Kenya and other developing countries.

This lifestyle transition is imposing the double burden of infectious diseases and NCDs in an environment incapable of dealing with the ensuing burden.

By 2020, the World Health Organisation predicts, NCDs will be causing seven out of every 10 deaths in developing countries.

Most NCDs share the same risk factors: Tobacco smoking, a diet high in saturated fat and low in fruit and vegetables, alcohol consumption and physical inactivity.

This tendency is concentrated in urban areas. Despite strong evidence of the arrival and consequences of the physical activity and nutrition transition in developing countries like Kenya, there has been little action by policy-makers, international aid agencies, industry and academia.

Kenyans are admired globally as being active and fit, producing a disproportionate number of elite athletes.

The emerging physical activity and nutrition transition in Kenya is, therefore, likely to lead to a less active lifestyle, eroding our athletic prowess and national identity.

It is thus critical, from a cultural, economic and public health perspective, to encourage and facilitate a healthy active lifestyle across all populations.

Further, it is important to monitor physical activity patterns and fitness levels among Kenyans so as to initiate necessary interventions.

Education, advocacy and awareness campaigns are also important if this war against NCDs is to be worn.

Kenya’s Vision 2030 will only be realised if we put concerted efforts towards addressing the public health problem caused by NCDs.

To this end, Kenyatta University, in collaboration with Canadian researchers, has formed a research alliance aimed at addressing the problem of physical inactivity.

The alliance is called the Kenyan International Development Study-Canadian Activity Needs (Kids-Can) Research Alliance.

In another effort to address the problems related to physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyles, Healthy Active Kids Kenya (HAKK) has been established.

It advocates, promotes and encourages Kenyans to be physically active and to eat healthy foods as a way of addressing the problem of non-cummunicable diseases.

The fact that the UN General Assembly decided to hold a summit on the prevention of NCDs is a step in the right direction.

IT focused on the four most prominent NCDs, namely, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, with the aim of seeking a global strategy to address them.

It is hoped that Kenya, and indeed other developing countries, will take the necessary steps to address the problems associated with nutrition and physical activity transition before it is too late.

Dr Onywera is a co-founder of Kids-Can and Healthy Active Kids Kenya and a senior lecturer at Kenyatta University, Department of Recreation Management and Exercise Science.