We crave for the good things in life but our children are paying the price for convenience, comfort and the ‘cool life’.
Recently, a 25-year old had to be rushed to hospital for emergency medical attention. He had been working long hours in his extremely demanding corporate job, then hanging out at pubs with friends, eating and drinking till the wee hours.
After another evening of binge eating and drinking he collapsed suddenly and was taken to a hospital where the doctors said that he had suffered a heart attack. His critical condition was held by the doctors to be a direct result of a high stress work life, erratic lifestyle as well as unhealthy eating and drinking habits…a lifestyle disease it is, they told the guy’s anxious friends and relatives.
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend an interactive session organized by Plan India during the World Non-Communicable Diseases Congress at Chandigarh and gathered some important and valuable facts regarding these diseases.
Today, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as heart disease, stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes are the leading cause of disability and mortality in the world.
According to a recent WHO report, of 56.4 million global deaths in 2015, 39.5 million, or 70%, were due to non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The four main NCDs are cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic lung diseases. Further, in 2015, over three quarters of NCD deaths occurred in low and middle-income countries with about 48% of deaths occurring before the age of 70 in these countries.
While the average life expectancy of Indians has increased over the years, yet our life is not exactly disease and pain free. Lifestyle diseases are hitting more people in lower age groups than earlier. In fact, today, almost 60% of all premature deaths occur due to non-communicable diseases. The incidence of neurological and respiratory diseases, kidney and liver failure etc are also on the rise. Childhood obesity, diabetes and hypertension have started affecting even our children and youth.
Unfortunately, most people do not even realize that these diseases do not spring up overnight; rather they are the result of years of neglect and abuse of their bodies. Most non-communicable diseases are not the result of any one factor but a vicious combination of many factors like poverty, erratic eating and sleep habits, stress related to studies, work, appearance; addiction to drugs, alcohol and tobacco; insufficient physical activity, environmental pollution, ingesting adulterated or pesticide laden food, high-fat-sugar-salt (HFSS) diet, indiscriminate use and disposal of plastics and so on. Moreover, these factors also impact people’s mental health but so silently that they don’t even notice the symptoms.
I was curious to know more about the prevalence of these diseases in India, especially among our children; therefore, I spoke to a Plan India resource person to know how their organization is spreading awareness and promoting good health among the youth.
I was told that Plan India which is a child rights organisation providing children, especially girls, with access to education, healthcare, protection and livelihood opportunities, has initiated a Young Health Program (YHP) in association with AstraZeneca.
It was felt that ignorance is one of the biggest impediments to combating and preventing any disease. People today have very superficial knowledge of the causes of NCDs. They are advised to eat healthy food but do they even know what exactly is healthy food? Is it enough to just count calories? Shouldn’t we also count the additives, salt and sugar in processed food that we keep eating without sparing a thought for their adverse impact on our health?
Children may say that they have eaten only one packet of potato chips but do they know that a single packet of our favorite packet of potato chips contains almost half of the amount of sodium needed by a human being in a day?
In India, packets and cans of processed food have hardly any significant information about the additives in the food item and even if it is mentioned not many people really bother to read it. With most people spending around 12 hours in their workplaces and daily commuting to and fro, people find it easier to buy packaged food rather than cook three meals everyday. While packaged food may be convenient, it is also hazardous to our health.
Many studies have also revealed a direct connection between the burning of bio-mass fuels and low birth weight of children. In fact, impact of inhaling particulate matter in smoke and harmful gases when food is cooked on wood and coal fired chulha in cramped surroundings is 40% more than that from smoking cigarettes. This affects women and children the most. There is also growing evidence highlighting the acute and chronic adverse effect of general and indoor pollution on human health.
Can non-communicable diseases be prevented?
Well, as they say ‘prevention is always better than cure’, hence one should strive to prevent the onset of a disease rather than be struck with it and then start looking for cures. Although some policy-based factors are within the purview of the government and it is for the government to formulate rules and laws to tackle them yet we, as an individual and society as a whole must undertake some responsibility of our own health and environment.
For poor people, it is natural to be concerned more about earning their basic necessities than about their health. Even if they are disseminated information about the causes of various lifestyle related diseases, advised to exercise restraint in eating high-fat-salt-sugar and eat more fruits, vegetables, lentils etc they may not be able to do so because of the high cost of buying these. So they must be informed about other less expensive but healthier options.
It is for the government to provide safe and cheap public transport to dissuade people from using individual vehicles. Better traffic management system would not only reduce traffic jams but also reduce the everyday travel time and also stress caused by delay in reaching their destination on time. Cycle tracks can also help reduce usage of expensive and harmful bio fuels and also promote better health. Eliminating all sources of soil, air and water pollution should be the first priority of any government. At the same time, it is for us citizens to opt more for walking than driving to even short distances.
Why is it important to involve youth in this initiative?
Since these diseases have begun to affect the children and youth also, it is imperative to go down to the community level and include them in this fight against non-communicable diseases. They can even influence their elders to exercise more caution in their choices and preferences and also to alter their unhealthy lifestyle.
Since children are prone to being tempted by advertisements and peer pressure and may easily succumb to it due to easy availability of junk food, tobacco products, alcohol and even drugs in their immediate surroundings, they must be empowered with knowledge so that they are able to make informed choices.
The Young Health Programme is tackling the significant threat of Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in India by aiming to reduce the risk of alcohol, tobacco, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity.
Currently, the third phase of the programme is expanding to marginalised communities in North West Delhi and focuses on vulnerable young people between 10-24 years. The strategies include empowerment through peer education, community mobilisation, strengthening health services and local advocacy.
We must move from finding cures to finding ways to prevent the onset of diseases if we want to lead a pain free long life. Since non-communicable diseases are caused by multiple factors and affects people of all age groups, it is important to understand that preventing them is not the responsibility of any one stakeholder. Rather a multi-level, multi-factoral and multi-stakeholder approach is needed to combat these diseases effectively.
All such long term efforts to support children across all groups, including from marginalized groups, need sustained, long-term effort. Make a donation today to support Plan India’s work in the space of child rights, health and welfare. Let’s all work together to make sure that no child is left behind.