A potential ban on smoking in Cayman was among some of the “drastic” measures that could be looked at to help win the war against chronic non-communicable diseases, Health Minister Osbourne Bodden told delegates at a national healthcare conference.
Minister Bodden, speaking at the three-day conference at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, told the hundreds of attendees, “We’re going to have to take some bold steps as a government, as a country going forward. There’s no two ways about it. We have to look at maybe an eventual banning of cigarettes.”
Two years ago, the Cayman Islands government doubled import duty on cigarettes with duty on a carton of cigarettes set at $42. But people are still smoking, Mr. Bodden said.
“Sometimes, you almost have to force people to look after themselves,” he said.
Smoking was banned in most public places in January 2010, but cigar bars were made exempt. Fines for smoking in a place where it was banned range from $2,000 to $10,000 for the smoker and from $15,000 to $30,000 to the establishment.
Other aspects of the Tobacco Law included a requirement for large graphic warnings on cigarette packages and point-of-sale signage stating “smoking kills.”
Other changes suggested by Mr. Bodden at the conference included banning junk food in schools, improved public transport to promote physical exercise, and weight loss vacations.
Mr. Bodden told delegates that the revitalization of George Town would support a healthier lifestyle by encouraging people to walk more, due to closed streets and bicycle lanes. He also said that government hopes to implement more bicycle lanes on major roads, as well as parks throughout the island to “create a healthier environment.”
Throughout the conference, which began Thursday evening, the message that government and private sectors must work together to combat non-communicable diseases was delivered by several health experts.
Claiming the lives of more than 36 million people worldwide each year, tackling chronic non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, obesity, and mental illness, was the focus of this year’s conference.
“We’re not yet winning that war,” said Dr. James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Public Health Agency, who spoke on new management schemes for non-communicable diseases at the opening of the conference.
The health sector cannot win this fight on its own; an intersectoral approach will be needed, said several speakers. Chronic non-communicable diseases are the leading causes of death in Cayman.
“We have a ways to go, and if we do this conference again, it needs to have education, trade, agriculture, finance, communications, and Chamber of Commerce, to really have a chance of winning the war,” said Dr. Hospedales.
Major influences that shape the health of a population lie outside of the health sector, such as alcohol, cigarettes, and food industries, delegates heard.
“We cannot deal with this in the health sector alone; we need to bring in all the various healthcare sectors, look to our agriculture, and food and beverage industry,” said Dr. Edward Anim-Addo, who gave a talk Friday on global trends in diabetes and obesity.
The issue is a major one in Cayman, where studies show that 22 percent of school children are overweight.
Mental illness is another heavy burden on Cayman, and chairman of the Mental Health Commission, Dr. Marc Lockhart, opened the second day of the conference highlighting its prevalence.
Over the last year, it is estimated that at least 4,000 people in Cayman – about 7 percent of the population – sought treatment for a mental health disorder, according to Dr. Lockhart.
“It’s interesting to note that if we were to take that total number of 4,000; that’s more people than two districts out of our six. And, if we add in those that don’t seek treatment … for our size, that’s a lot.”
More than 500 people said they sought treatment for substance abuse over the last year, said Dr. Lockhart.
“It’s all around us,” he said, “In this room alone, we’re going to have quite a few people that have mental health issues.”
Shannon Seymour of the Wellness Centre highlighted a community-led approach as a way to combat mental illness. Mental Health First Aid, which was created in 2001 in Australia, trains people to become mental health responders, which allows them to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders.
“We have a role to play. When it comes to physical health, we’re very good at rallying around people that are sick … We don’t do the same when people are suffering from mental illness, we tend to avoid, we tend to back away, we tend to keep our distance,” said Ms. Seymour.
“The message of mental health first aid is that message of approach, to be comfortable, to approach that person, to talk to them, to ask them how they’re doing.” Dr. Lockhart said the goal of talking about mental health at a national conference is to get the information out and break down the stigma surrounding the disease.
Throughout Friday, talks were given on DNA sequencing treatments for cancer, newly developed cancer vaccines, and global trends in type two diabetes.
Dr. George Peoples, director of Cancer Vaccine Development Program, said Friday that 20 patients have undergone cancer vaccine treatment, which involves a series of four injections over four months, since trials began in Cayman last year.
So far, two Caymanian patients with melanoma have had personalized immunization treatments.
“We’ve been treating patients with this vaccine technology here for the past year, between our first 20 patients, we’ve already saved four patients, and we’ve seen a 60 percent overall clinical response rate,” said Dr. Peoples.
The local treatment center, Perseus, has been granted approval to continue clinical trials, and the company is working on making treatments more accessible to Caymanian patients, he said.