of Jamaica’s foremost epidemiologists, Dr Julia Rowe Porter, says with data showing that more than half of Jamaicans are overweight and obese, the island is being “set up for a tsunami of diabetes” which will sweep present and future generations.
“Our statistics are going in the wrong direction, and we want to ensure that the message goes out, not just to the general population, but we want the messages to be about and from our children as well. Our statistics are showing that our children and adolescents are becoming more and more affected by diabetes,” Dr Rowe Porter told reporters and editors at this week’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange.
According to Dr Rowe Porter, health officials are flagging the disease as “a major public health issue” during November, which is being observed as Diabetes Awareness Month.
Drilling down to the risk factors for the general population and children for type 2 diabetes, which is the most common, Rowe Porter said 54 per cent of Jamaicans are overweight and obese while more than 70 per cent have insufficient resources to access safe, adequate, and nutritious food; and four out of five or 82 per cent report low levels of physical activity.
“In our adolescents, 13 to 15 years of age — based on the global school health survey — we are concerned that 68 per cent of our adolescents are obese and these figures have doubled over the past seven years. We are concerned that our adolescents are drinking significant amounts of sugar sweetened beverages, which is a significant risk factor for overweight and obesity,” said Rowe Porter, who works in the Ministry of Health and Wellness’s Non-Communicable Disease and Injury Prevention Unit.
“Three out of four adolescents are consuming one or more sugar sweetened beverages per day, while a quarter of them are physically inactive, and a quarter of them eat fast food three or more days per week,” she said.
“So with data like this, Jamaica is being set up for a tsunami of diabetes in not just this generation but it’s going to worsen in our generations to come, and we are concerned that persons haven’t gotten that message. If they don’t get it, then our statistics will be worse in years to come,” she declared.
Statistics from the Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey 2016/2017 show that 12 per cent of Jamaicans 15 years and older are living with diabetes — a prevalence which increases with age and sees women being more affected than men. Diabetes is the second leading cause of death in Jamaica and is the top ranked cause of death for women and the third for men.
“Why is it such a major issue? Why is it causing so much death, it’s because when blood glucose levels remain uncontrolled for long periods of time complications happen — nerve damage, eye damage, kidney damage, heart disease, and we are concerned about premature death. Not just for those who are elderly, but those in their productive years less than 70 years of age are dying,” Rowe Porter emphasised.
“So, it’s a major impact on individuals, and friends, families are being affected, and it’s also putting significant pressure on our public health system because we have over 200,000 persons living with diabetes that need treatment and several are getting complications that are causing hospitalisation and death,” Rowe Porter said.
“Furthermore, we are concerned many persons are unaware of their status. The persons that were found to have diabetes in the last health and lifestyle survey, 40 per cent were unaware. If we catch it late they are more likely to have complications,” she added.
In the meantime, Dr Rowe Porter pointed out that, while health officials were grateful that about 93 per cent of people with diabetes are on treatment, there was still dismay that “only a quarter of them are controlled, which means the majority are uncontrolled”.
Family physician Dr Jacqueline Campbell, who was also a guest at the Monday Exchange, described the statistics as “alarming”.
“I’m a family physician and I see this playing out in practice literally every single day, and it’s not something that is new; it’s something that has been happening for quite a number of years, and it’s getting worse,” she said.
“As Dr Rowe Porter said, it is not just older persons but younger persons, and we have to really think about the fact that this disease is complicated, meaning that it’s difficult to treat frequently, and not only that, there are numerous complications,” she stated.
“So, if you have a young person developing diabetes, think about this person’s lifespan. This person is going to have to live longer with complications and we are going to have more of a burden on the person’s resources and the health system in general.
“I believe the key to this is education. Many people come into the practice and all they can say is ‘I have sugar and I am taking some tablets.’ They don’t know why they are taking the tablets and how they should take the tablets so they need significant education to empower them,” Dr Campbell said.
Diabetes Awareness Month is being observed under the theme ‘Education: to Protect Tomorrow’.