BELIZE CITY–Whereas violent homicides tend to grab the national news headlines, there are some insidious villains slipping under the radar, as even more Belizean lives are being lost to the deadly trio: diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which continue to emerge as leading killers in Belize and which account for 60% of non-communicable diseases, largely linked to unhealthy lifestyle habits.
Up to Thursday, August 28, forty-seven cancer cases had been diagnosed through the public healthcare system, the latest case being cancer of the larynx in a man still in his productive years and possibly linked to smoking.
“In Belize, one in three adults die by non-communicable diseases [NCDs] before age 60, and that is premature death,” said Dr. Manuel Ramirez, coordinator of the Research Center of INCAP for the Prevention of Chronic Diseases (CIIPEC), at a lecture held on Friday morning at the Radisson Fort George Hotel in Belize City.
Ramirez said that people are dying by NCDs at an earlier age, but more women are being affected than men. He said that in Central America, NCDs kill 61% of men but 73% of women, because violence and injuries take the lives of more men than women.
In Belize, where the homicide rate is higher than the regional average, the gap is even wider, with 54% of men and 73% of women dying due to NCDs.
Furthermore, more women are overweight or obese. Ramirez pointed to a 2005 survey for Belize which found that 59,000 men and 81,000 women age 20 and over were overweight, while 26,000 men and 47,000 women were obese, or grossly overweight.
There is also rising obesity among children. Ramirez said that in Belize more than 4,000 children less than 5 years old, or about 8% of children this age, are already experiencing pediatric obesity, which is linked to social and psychological problems apart from health problems these children face.
He said that there is no data on school-aged children and adolescents in Belize, but noted that as age increases, the proportion of persons who are overweight or obese also increases.
Gary Longsworth, CEO of the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital (KHMH), Belize’s national referral hospital, told Amandala that there have definitely been more NCD cases coming to them at the hospital over the past decade.
“Without a doubt, we’ve seen an increase and it’s put a burden on our services which we try to meet. We have the only full-scale Intensive Care Unit in the country in the public service and the demands on that kind of tertiary level care has definitely increased. We have been seeing a lot of amputations, managing a lot of strokes and heart attacks, I would say more than I could recall 6 to 10 years ago,” Longsworth told us.
The KHMH in Belize City and La Loma Luz in Cayo are the two health facilities which offer dialysis services in conjunction with the Ministry of Health for patients with renal failure, often due to diabetes.
Dr. Longsworth said that the center is working at maximum capacity with 32 patients on the program.
Director of Health Services, Dr. Michael Pitts, pointed to three areas for policy that are key to addressing the high prevalence of NCDs: environmental, legal and economic. However, he pointed out that sometimes, there are competing interests. For example, Belize has an economic policy of supporting sugar, and he pointed to recent media reports that the country’s GDP has been bolstered during the second quarter by high sugar production. Pitts said that asking the country to reduce the use of sugar could also mean a reduction in economic activity, which, he said, represents a clash of objectives.
Dr. Ramirez said that while genetics does play a role in individual outcomes, food and recreation are major contributors. He also pointed to risk factors such as high blood pressure, high blood sugar and elevated cholesterol levels, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and health hazards such as smoking.
Ramirez spoke of the vicious cycle of food insecurity due to poverty, which drives higher levels of obesity. However, he explained that the situation is significantly worse for the urban poor than the rural poor, because the urban poor don’t have subsistence crops to nourish and sustain themselves, as the rural poor do.
Ramirez urged that the media needs to talk more about these issues and start being part of the solution. He noted that a significant portion of the media’s revenue comes from the food industry and a lot of those ads are targeted at children. In his presentation, he pointed out that larger bottles of soft drinks are now available and children are consuming these larger sugar-laden bottles of soda. He also showed how deceptive ads can be in promoting unhealthy products.
One of the suggestions discussed today was for policy and regulations to address media reporting and broadcast of health messages to help combat the problem.
According to Ramirez, Mexico has recently taken some proactive measures.
The Wall Street Journal reports that, “With a third of children in Mexico overweight, and the country’s entire population struggling with a high rate of Type 2 diabetes, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto pitched the restrictions as a tough follow-on to the adoption this year of special taxes on sugary beverages and calorie-dense snacks.”