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Khan: T&T must face obesity epidemic

Thursday, January 16, 2014

T&T’s burgeoning obesity epidemic is costing taxpayers $5 billion a year in medical costs and that figure is set to rise unless people make serious lifestyle changes. So said Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan yesterday as he expressed displeasure over the increasing number of patients suffering from the complications of non-communicable diseases. That, he said, was contributing to overcrowding at public health institutions. 



He added: “When people are unhealthy they end up increasing the hospital space and bed use. So right now the cost to the country is more than $5 billion a year because the private sector...we do not even count that. “The health sector is geared towards treating these people who are basically unhealthy as a result of their diet habits and as a result of their lifestyle and if I try and equate what happens to the private sector, the overall thing might be over $5 billion and more,” Khan said.


Khan, in an interview with the T&T Guardian yesterday, made no apologies for calling citizens “lazy” and saying that they were creating the crisis in which the hospitals are packed to capacity. He made the statements in a Trinidad Express article yesterday in which he said people were making themselves sick. The Health Minister told the T&T Guardian the situation was “bad.” “That is why I decided to make that utterance. Who do not like it, well, too bad, that is their business. Who find I too blunt, well, that is their business. 


“We have to take the bull by the horns and deal with it. There is all these admissions. They want more beds, they want more beds to lie down on it because you not eating healthy, you are creating this problem. “Stop creating this problem,” Khan said. The minister said a number of the cases in hospitals that take up the medical beds and the medical wards “can all be prevented or decreased to 90 per cent if people take care of themselves, take care of a healthy lifestyle.”


He said the obesity epidemic was creating a strain on the national budget every year and had an impact, not only on the health sector but social services as well. He added: “Not only are you treating them, they cannot work, so they are not contributing to the economy. They are sending their families into poverty so the State has to mind the poor families because the breadwinner is suffering from a non-communicable disease and cannot work. So it puts a strain on the social services.” 


As a nation, Khan said, T&T had to face the obesity epidemic, which was not only affecting adults but children as well. Khan said T&T registered a 65 per cent overall increase in obesity in the last 15 years while children registered a 55 per cent increase. “That is the biggest epidemic that is facing us but people are tolerating it because they figure that this is what happens as a result of onward living but that is not so,” he said.


Khan declined to label the ministry’s “Fight the Fat” campaign as unsuccessful and said this year the campaign would be aggressively pursued under the theme “Love Yourself”. The aim, he said, was to get citizens to eat healthily, exercise regularly, eat more vegetables and know their numbers—blood pressure and sugar figures. Through that, he said, citizens could prevent any complications taking place.


“If people do this as a lifestyle change,rather than expecting the hospitals to fix them when they have their indulgences (like) eating processed foods, sugars, oils, carbohydrates in abundance, then you will end up with a group of individuals who do not end up in hospitals every two days,” he said. Khan added: “I am supposed to be the minister of health not the minister of sickness.”



Co-ordinated effort needed
Paediatrician and T&T Guardian columnist Dr David Bratt says it was unfair of Khan to blame the public for the health crisis. He said a government has a responsibility to educate its population on critical health issues and take an active role in ensuring public health. Bratt, speaking with the T&T Guardian in a telephone interview yesterday, said: 


“Dr Khan has been talking about education for a number of years now but I am yet to see a sustained public health educational campaign in T&T telling people about how to make the changes to their lifestyle.” While Bratt agreed to some extent that people had to take some blame for their health, he said the Government had to take a strategic approach to deal with obesity and non-communicable diseases.


Bratt said a co-ordinated approach was needed to help people make key lifestyle changes and there must be partnerships with professional organisations, such as nutritionists, dietitians, medical professionals, to develop a plan to attack the problem.


“There are things the Government can do that I do not think they are doing. I think it is easy to talk and blame people and they will like to blame people for everything but they have to take some action. It is a national problem and it needs the Government to address it,” he said. Bratt suggested tax incentives for companies that bought gym equipment or promoted exercise in the workplace, increased support for farmers and promoting breast-feeding by increasing the cost of infant formula.


“We know that breast milk is linked with less obesity. If you breastfeed your child for the first year of life the child has much less chance of becoming obese and therefore developing heart disease and all those long-term things, like stroke and blood pressure,” he added. 


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