Long viewed by some Africans as ailments of the West, non-communicable diseases like hypertension - high blood pressure - and diabetes are becoming major public health threats in Zimbabwe, highlighting the need for a strong and coordinated response to heighten awareness and treatment of these so-called silent killers.
For many years, HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and malaria have received the most attention in Zimbabwe as elsewhere in Africa as threats to health and longevity. Particularly in the case of HIV/Aids, its spread has been so wide and the consequences so obviously deadly that fighting the pandemic has become a national mission. Tuberculosis often goes along with HIV/Aids, and malaria historically has been endemic in certain zones of the country.
Hypertension and diabetes have not always been major health problems in Africa, but are growing rapidly now that traditional diets are giving way to eating habits including more fat and sugar.
A recent study published in Britain' Lancet medical journal said the number of cases of diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa could double by 2030 to approximately 24 million, setting up a “public health and socioeconomic time bomb.”
The study noted that much less funding is going to prevention and treatment of these diseases, and less attention in public health programs. In Zimbabwe experts warn the clock is ticking and say a major health crisis will develop if more is not done to educate the population.
Dr. Elopy Sibanda, a consulting physician at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, said most s health resources are being spent on HIV when evidence suggests even more Zimbabweans are affected by such diseases.
Dr. Sibanda said little has been done to educate Zimbabewans on how to prevent the serious health consequences of high blood pressure, such as heart or kidney disease, or the equally serious effects of diabetes.
Health Minister Henry Madzorera says one in four Zimbabweans has hypertension and one in 10 Zimbabweans has some form of diabetes. Dr. Madzorera says Zimbabwe has joined hands with regional health ministries to step up public education on such non-communicable diseases to help people maintain their good health.
But he adds that increased resources are needed to inform Zimbabweans about risks, how to detect such diseases in the early stages before serious damage is done, and what kind of treatment should be sought.
Nurse Ana Mujaka notes that such diseases are gaining attention at a time when the country has lost a great number of the experienced health professionals required to diagnose and treat them. And rural populations with inadequate access to health care are often in the dark about conditions that can cause long-term harm.
Dr. Madzorera pledged that during his tenure he will do all he can to ensure Zimbabweans come to understand the danger they face from high blood pressure and diabetes among other conditions that often go undetected.
In many cases such risks can be reduced through dietary changes – reducing salt consumption or losing weight to fight hypertension. Losing weight can also help to control diabetes in its early stages.