Barbados faced and beat health challenges in the past and will eventually overcome the scourge of premature death and disablement from non-communicable diseases, University of the West Indies (UWI) Chancellor Sir George Alleyne has said.
But as he delivered a key presentation in the UWI, Cave Hill Campus 50th Anniversary lecture series last night, Sir George warned that this nation is a long way off from that date of victory, and pointed out that too many Barbadians are still dying young.
Speaking in the Roy Marshall Lecture Theatre, he said that in Barbados’ current situation there is “a major preoccupation” with NCDs, those chronic conditions that cause death before the age of 70.
“It is the early deaths at ages when people are in their productive years – or shall I say their most productive years – that are of great concern,” he said.
Reminding the audience of his stance that people continue to be very productive after age 70, he added: “Barbados must address the fact that about 70 per cent of the avoidable premature mortality which comes from NCDs results from behaviour and the social and environmental factors that are potentially modifiable through addressing the known risk factors – tobacco, alcohol, diet and physical inactivity.”
Sir George, who began practising medicine in 1965 and became a UWI Professor of Medicine in 1972, said the movement of Barbados’ history poises it to encounter medical situations of national crisis proportions and surmount these challenges every time.
“The seeds of the health problems of today were sown in the successes of yesterday and, similarly, our successes of today will craft much of tomorrow’s fate,” he said. “Barbados duly passed through the stage of famine and pestilence and is now faced with the problem of the chronic conditions, especially the chronic non-communicable diseases.
“There will be ups and downs but the arc of the history of health in Barbados bends inexorably towards steady improvement and longevity and the NCDs are and will be in part a result of that longevity,” Sir George added.
Revisiting the past to show from what Barbados has come, he said: “Our health was not always good, and was a reflection of the conditions that caused the major social upheaval of 1937.”
He noted, of that era, that the health situation in Barbados was among the worst in the West Indies, with high infant mortality rates, deplorable sanitation, poverty and rampant malnutrition. Infant mortality in 1937 was 217 per 1 000 live births.
But by the time of Independence, Sir George noted, “there was marked improvement of the health situation. The infant mortality rate had fallen and life expectancy had increased”.
He added life expectancy has increased from 63.6 years in 1966 to 75.5 years today, and infant mortality rate has fallen from 49.2 infant deaths per thousand live births to 12, describing those statistics as “evidence of progress in public health”.
The Director Emeritus of the Pan American Health Organization which he headed from 1995 to 2003, said that among the reasons for Barbados’ advancement in population health is the improvement in the economy.
While the high prevalence of NCDs means that Barbadians are being picked off in their early years, Sir George said the preference is for the onset of such illnesses closer to the end of the natural lifespan.
“I believe that the preferred future that is to be our fate in health must be crafted as one of a long and healthy life with the inevitable health problems concentrated in as short a period as possible at the end – the rectangularization of life,” he said.
Sir George said achieving that goal calls for a change in the distribution of risk of NCDs in the population. And he laid that task squarely at the feet of national leaders.
“This change in the distribution of risk is beyond the agency of any single individual; no one person can do it. It is the responsibility of the Government to do so. And it is for that reason we continue to stress that it is the indispensable responsibility of government to so change the enabling environment, that the healthy choice becomes the easy choice,” he contended.
In this regard, Sir George congratulated the Freundel Stuart administration for the imposition of a 10 per cent tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, thereby reducing the incentive for people to consume processed sugary products that predispose them to NCDs, including diabetes.
While not discounting the role of individual agencies in tackling the current health challenges, Sir George said the major tools in the hands of government are the laws, education, and the allocation of money in its budget.