Opening the seventh annual Cayman Islands Healthcare Conference Thursday evening, the leading public health official in the Caribbean told conference goers about the next big public health goal – work against violence and unhealthy lifestyles to increase the region’s average life span three years by 2025.
Caribbean Public Health Agency Executive Director Dr. James Hospedales said reaching that goal will require work beyond the health sector into education, urban planning and agriculture to change the way people live in the Caribbean and create healthier lifestyles.
The Caribbean Cooperation in Health IV, or CCH IV, as the regional initiative is called, was approved last month by ministers of health from Caribbean Community member states.
The other big goal for CCH IV is to reduce what’s called the “disability-adjusted life years” – meaning the measure of disease overall expressed as how many years of life are lost due to health problems and other causes of early death – by 10 percent in 10 years.
Explaining the goal, Dr. Hospedales said CCH I was able to eliminate measles in 1991, the first region in the world to eliminate the highly infectious virus. “This region may be small, but we can do big things,” he told the crowd of about 400 at the conference.
Organizers say almost 1,000 people turned out over the four days of the conference.
The theme for this year’s conference fits well with the new Caribbean public health goal: The Chapter of a Healthy Life. Sessions at the free conference highlighted health issues through a person’s life from childhood to old age.
Health Ministry Chief Officer Jennifer Ahearn, in an interview at the conference, said the sessions planned for this year had something for everyone: healthcare professionals, patients and parents. She said she hoped attendees could get “that one nugget of information to make a positive change in their life.”
She added, “The speakers will hit every step of people’s lives.”
The conference included sessions on children with disabilities, childhood trauma and emotional health, menopausal health and ageing.
Dr. Hospedales and the new regional public health goals also hope to tackle each step in people’s lives. To reach the goal of extending life expectancy regionwide, he said CARICOM countries will need to look at the broader societies to get people eating healthier, exercising more and reducing violence.
Obesity a serious issue
The number one cause of death in the Caribbean, and in Cayman, is non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Dr. Hospedales showed a graph of overweight and obesity rates in the region, and the Cayman Islands was one of the top countries on the chart, with more than 65 percent of men overweight and more than 70 percent of women.
He said problems with obesity, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease, should be addressed through policies to help people be more active and eat healthier. For example, he said, the built environment on many Caribbean islands does not help people get daily exercise. “Developers in the Caribbean like to fill every inch with housing and roads,” he said, but they don’t include walking paths and bike lanes that, Dr. Hospedales said, would be good for people’s health and the environment.
He said another policy issue for CARICOM states is that most do not have mandatory food labelling rules. The Caribbean is “highly dependent on imported foods,” he said, but most people may not know what they are actually eating.
Another factor in the region is violence. The leading cause of death for people 15 to 24 years old in the Caribbean is from injuries, either from accidents or violence. Murders in some countries, he said, cause an “epidemic of fear and stress,” leading people to spend money on security instead of healthcare and education.
The violence seen in some Caribbean states is not nearly as much of a problem in the Cayman Islands, but non-communicable diseases continue to challenge the healthcare system in Cayman.
Dr. Elizabeth McLaughlin, acting chief medical officer for Cayman’s Ministry of Health, said the average life expectancy in Cayman is 82, better than the United States, Canada and many of the islands’ neighbors in the region. But, she said, obesity and related diseases could threaten that.
“If we don’t have healthy bodies and healthy minds, we cannot enjoy all that we have,” she said on the opening night of the conference.