Chronic preventable diseases represent the greatest threat to the health of Cayman Islands residents, according to doctors who warn of a looming healthcare crisis in the territory.
Rising obesity rates are fueling an increase in heart disease, asthma, cancer and diabetes that will stretch resources and contribute to a spike in healthcare costs over the next two decades.
Now doctors are attempting to target those diseases before they happen.
Around 200 people were given free blood pressure, cholesterol and body mass index tests at the eighth annual Heart Health Fair at Camana Bay’s Arts and Recreation Centre on Saturday,
Dr. Sook Yin of the Cayman Heart Fund said screening is vital to detecting diseases before they develop. She said the health profession is increasingly focusing on proactive approaches, particularly working with children, to alter the sedentary lifestyle habits contributing to the rise in chronic, preventable diseases.
“Of course we need to deal with Ebola and chikungunya, but the brewing situation in the next 20 years is that there is going to be a boom in these chronic noncommunicable diseases,” she said.
“In the past, the approach has been to treat patients when they are sick. Now, the proactive approach is a much bigger part of healthcare. We really want to stop diseases before they develop.”
One initiative, led by Dr. Christine Chen, is the MaplesFS Get Active Challenge 2015, which will include 15 overweight or obese children, between ages 11 and 18, and take them through an intensive 12-week program aimed at changing their lifestyles.
The program involves fitness training, advice on reading food labels, a farm tour and learning to make fruit shakes and fresh salads with chefs at Ortanique.
Dr. Chen, who was recruiting youngsters for the program on Saturday, said the aim is to work with them to change their habits and show them that eating healthy and exercising can be fun.
“We’re starting to find more kids with pre-diabetes, hypertension, some with diabetes. This is directly linked to being overweight or obese.
“The program is about trying to get these kids more interested in health. It is about creating good habits that will last, we don’t want them to focus only on the numbers.”
Dr. Yin said the medical profession is making a coordinated effort to tackle the causes of chronic diseases.
“The risk factors are the same in all those diseases, so we are going after that,” she said.
Dr. Diane Hislop-Chestnut of the Cayman Islands Children’s Health Task Force said tackling obesity among school-age children is a key priority.
She said the task force has begun to target much younger children with healthy lifestyle messages after local studies showed it was harder to change ingrained habits of teenagers.
“If you get to the kids when they are younger, it is much more effective. You need to get the parents involved too because the kids are not the ones doing the supermarket shopping,” she added.
According to local statistics, around 15 percent of children starting school are already overweight or obese. That figure rises to more than a third of children at ages 10 to 14.
Dr. Hislop said children who are overweight early in life are likely to be the same ones suffering from heart disease in their 30s and 40s.
Such conditions have implications for financial wellbeing too.
“Primary prevention in the long run is more cost effective,” added Dr. Chen.
“Who wants to take insulin injections or tablets all their life and have to pay to do it?”
One challenge doctors identify is the high cost of eating healthy. Dr. Yin believes more needs to be done to cut the cost of fruits and vegetables in the Cayman Islands.
“We want to encourage the government to see how we can reduce the prices on fruit and vegetables. I am not sure why it is so expensive. What is causing it, and how can we help reduce it?
“Patients are telling us they can’t afford to buy fruits and vegetables when they can get a bucket of chicken from KFC and feed the whole family.”