The bad habits that are making Africans sick

What we should be doing.
What we should be doing.
Image: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly
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Healthcare in Africa has long focused on communicable diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS and Ebola, as the region lurches from one epidemic to another. Increased development has led to better responses to these diseases, and an improved lifestyle for many on the continent.

But within this progress lurks another health threat. Africans are living longer, but also taking up poor habits that threaten our health.

The World Health Organization’s Report on the Status of Major Health Risk Factors for Noncommunicable Diseases showed a series of worrying trends. Most African adults were found to have at least one of the five major risk factors for noncommunicable diseases: smoking, bad diet, lack of exercise, excess weight and high blood pressure. At least a quarter of adults were observed to have at least three of these five combined risk factors. (The survey data was collected across 33 countries, using a representative sample.)

In the next decade, noncommunicable diseases will kill 44 million people worldwide, an increase of 15% since the 2010 estimate, according to the WHO. In Africa that will result in 3.9 millions deaths by 2020.

While national public health strategies have responded to pandemics, it is essential to devise national strategies to treat and prevent noncommunicable diseases though lifestyle and behavioral changes, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa.

Key among the risk factors on the continent was an increase in smoking. In Lesotho, for example, an estimated 50% of men smoke. Most tobacco use comes from manufactured cigarettes, not chewing or sniffing, meaning national anti-tobacco campaigns are needed.

Binge drinking—the consumption of five drinks in one sitting—is another concerning factor. While a median of 63% of respondents were non-drinkers (thanks to 99% alcohol abstinence in countries like Algeria and Niger), binge drinking was “extremely high” among those who did drink.

For example in Chad, the prevalence of binge drinking is almost 70% for men and over 65% for women. Even worse, 13 countries reported underage drinking: highest were Seychelles (61.6%), Zambia (42.3%) and Namibia (32.8%), putting schoolchildren at risk of addiction and illnesses related to alcohol.

In all of the countries surveyed, adults did not eat the recommended five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. In most countries, very little fruit was eaten in general, but a love of vegetables made up for that.

Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death from noncommunicable diseases worldwide. In Africa, exercise rates ranged drastically, from an average of nearly 400 minutes a day in Mozambique to just over 20 minutes in Mauritania. The five countries with the highest prevalence of adults who classified as physically inactive (measured at less than 600 MET minutes per week) were Mauritania (51%), Cameroon (44%), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (44%), Côte d’Ivoire (42%), and Algeria (41%).

The survey also found that excess weight and obesity were on the increase, with women more likely to develop both conditions. Ghana had the highest instance of overweight people (60%) and obesity (27%). Seychelles (60%), Swaziland (53%), Liberia (50%), and Algeria (47%) followed Ghana in overweight people, while Seychelles (25%), Swaziland (24%), Liberia (22%), and Mauritania (21%) followed it in obesity. Madagascar, Eritrea and Niger were found to have the lowest rates of obesity and overweight people.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the fastest growing illnesses in Africa, and the WHO survey found a median prevalence of 31%, or one in three adults, suffered from the condition. Hypertension is linked to lifestyle habits such as the high intake of salt, alcohol, low exercise, and obesity. Diabetes, with a prevalence of 8%, was less common but still a cause for concern.