Childhood obesity continues to be a serious problem in Jamaica, with more than 11 per cent of children, 10 to 15 years old, and 35 per cent of teenagers, between 15 to 18 years, being classified as overweight or obese.
The Government is moving to address the issue and other lifestyle diseases, through the recently established National Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) Committee.
Director, Health Promotion and Protection Unit, Ministry of Health, Dr. Kevin Harvey, tells JIS News that childhood obesity is not only a problem in Jamaica. He says it is already an epidemic in many countries, and is on the rise in most others, with an estimated 22 million children, under the age of five years, deemed to be overweight worldwide.
He informs that in England, obesity in adolescents and children of all ethnicities has increased nearly two-fold over the past 10 years. In Brazil, the prevalence of obesity in older children, aged six to 18, almost tripled between 1975 and 1997. In the United States, the number of overweight children has doubled and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled since 1980.
He notes that this shows that "we're having not just an issue relating to the non-communicable diseases among our adults, but our children and adolescents are suffering disproportionately."
Dr. Harvey further says childhood obesity places future generations at high risk of obesity, as obese adolescents eventually become obese adults. Data shows that up to 80 per cent of children, who were overweight between ages 10 and 15 years, were obese adults at age 25.
He says the issue is of critical health concern for all governments based on its immediate and long-term health impacts.
"Obese youths are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. Obese youths are also more likely than those of normal weight to become overweight or obese adults, and therefore more at risk for associated adult health problems, including heart disease, type-two diabetes, strokes and several types of cancers,” he points out.
Dr. Harvey suggests that healthy lifestyle habits, including healthy eating and physical activity, can lower the risk of becoming obese and developing related diseases.
He says a multi-sectoral approach, involving stakeholders from both the private and public sector, is needed to fight the epidemic.
He informs that fortunately, such an approach was now being developed through the NCD Committee, led by Dr. Rosemarie Wright-Pascoe.
The approach, he says, will seek to regulate calories, ensure food security, create a supportive environment and encourage physical activity in schools, in order to mitigate the impact of obesity on health care costs, morbidity and mortality, and the overall quality of life of the Jamaican people.
"This will need strong commitment and participation at the highest level to succeed," he says.
Meanwhile, Chairperson of the newly formed National NCD Committee, Dr. Wright-Pascoe, says the group is committed to providing leadership in the fight against non-communicable diseases in Jamaica.
The national committee for NCDs in Jamaica was established by the Ministry of Health in December 2011.
It was formed in keeping with recommendations out of a Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Heads of Government meeting in Port of Spain on NCDs in 2007, and is comprised of representatives from all Ministries, several non-governmental organisations, faith-based organisations, academia and the private sector.
Dr. Wright-Pascoe says the committee will aim to provide the overall strategic direction, leadership, expertise and guidance to the Ministry of Health, and all other stakeholders on matters related to the prevention and control of NCDs in Jamaica.
She notes that current statistics on the prevalence of such diseases among young people across the globe and in Jamaica are frightening.
"The prevalence of overweight in children increases yearly, as they get older. Overweight and obese children will have higher cholesterol and higher glucose levels even as children," she states.
She further notes that “overweight or obese parents predict overweight or obese children, and as overweight and obesity is more than 60 per cent in our female population, you can imagine what this means for the future generation."
"We clearly must stop the epidemic. It is therefore appropriate that we address the non-communicable diseases throughout the life cycle – the mother, the foetus, the baby, the child, the adult, the elderly person," she advises.
She lauds the efforts of the government, through the Ministries of Health and Education in the implementation of the 'Health Promoting Schools Initiative’, which is geared towards empowering schools to facilitate healthy choices and the development of healthy behaviour from a young age.
A Health Promoting School has been defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an institution which strengthens its capacity as a healthy environment for living, learning and working. “As such it becomes a place where all members of the school community work together to provide students with integrated and positive experiences and a structure, which promotes and protects their health,” the WHO says.