• Authored By: Blessing Atwine
06 Sep 2023

Globally, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), namely cardiovascular diseases (heart attacks and stroke), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes, cause an estimated 41 million deaths annually, equivalent to 71 percent of all deaths .

Notably 77 percent of NCDs deaths are in low- and middle-income countries. Majority of these deaths are premature (i.e., more than 15 million people die from an NCD between 30 and 69 years annually).

Eighty five percent of premature NCDs related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, Uganda inclusive. Lifestyle factors, including unhealthy diet, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and harmful use of alcohol, largely contribute to the NCDs burden. Uganda is not exempt from this trend. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO, 2019), 35 percent of total deaths in Uganda are due to NCDs. Every Ugandan citizen’s probability of dying prematurely from NCDs is 22 percent.

According to Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI), cancer cases are rapidly rising, with 4,000 new cases registered annually. Some 27 percent of adults in the country are hypertensive, and diabetes cases increased by 7 percent between 2012 and 2016 (WHO, 2016). This burden will continue to rise unless immediate action is taken. Notably, NCDs do not only kill, but they also lead to reduced quality of life, increased healthcare costs, and decreased productivity. The burden falls disproportionately on vulnerable populations, worsening health disparities in terms of access and utilisation of health services.

Unhealthy diets, a catalyst for NCDs

Unhealthy diets, rich in trans and saturated fats, added sugars, salt, and other harmful ingredients and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fiber, and micronutrients, are a primary cause of overweight, obesity, and diet-related NCDs. These combined with rapid globalisation, unplanned urbanisation, and unhealthy lifestyles have fuelled the rise in food and beverage multinational corporations producing sugar-sweetened beverages and ultra-processed foods- “junk foods.”

The availability of cheap, ultra-processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages has prompted a nutrition transition, shifting eating patterns from traditionary plant-based foods rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes to a westernised diet high in refined carbohydrates, added sugars, salt, and unhealthy fats. The urgent need to address this crisis necessitates creation of widespread awareness, sensitizing the masses on the risks and preventive measures to curb the rise of NCDs and promote a healthier future for all Ugandans.

Addressing the crisis through awareness creation

The NCDs crisis is worsened by ignorance of the masses-a lack of knowledge about the risk factors of eating unhealthy diets. While policies[1], laws[2], and regulations[3] are critical in curtailing the increase of NCDs, raising awareness should be at the core. Providing accurate and understandable information about risk factors and prevention measures is essential for enabling people to make healthier food choices and refuse unhealthy foods and beverages. This will push food and beverage industry players and farmers to provide healthy food options.

Awareness-raising programs can empower consumers to take charge of their lives, of what they eat. Simply put, if consumers are aware of the dangers of eating chemical-contaminated foods, vegetables, fruits, and calorie-dense foods, they will desist from buying them and cause action. Once there is no market for such unhealthy items, producers will strive to provide healthy, chemical-free foods, which is a win-win for all Ugandans.

Raising awareness requires participation from the local community and grassroots efforts. Collaboration with local organizations, community, cultural and religious leaders, and healthcare professionals can help close the knowledge gap and guarantee that awareness campaigns reach even the most rural parts of the country. Broad audiences can be effectively reached by working with radio, television, and print media outlets to promote health-related material. Social media platforms offer an additional opportunity to engage with the younger generation and teach them to make healthier food choices. Additionally, education facilities like schools can contribute to a healthier future by educating children about the value of consuming wholesome meals and engaging in physical activity by integrating NCD prevention into their curricula.

Eating healthy food is important to combat NCDs

Funding must be deliberately directed to combat NCDs

Notably, the success of awareness initiatives depends on government support. Ample funding must be directed to combat NCDs. To create awareness, a budget must be set aside for developing instructional materials and training nutritionists at local levels to disseminate the information. Deliberate efforts to support a healthier food environment, such as limiting the marketing of unhealthy foods, taxation of ultra-processed foods, simplifying front-of-pack labeling for clear decision-making, and, most significantly, expanding the availability of healthy, organically produced nutritious foods must be ensured.

In conclusion, quick action is needed in light of Uganda’s increasing NCD burden. Raising awareness through focused campaigns, community involvement, media partnerships, social media platforms, and educational activities is essential to reduce the rise of NCDs. We can create a healthy food environment for Ugandans by sensitizing people about risk factors, mostly unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, alcohol and tobacco use, and prevention methods, including choosing healthy foods and increasing physical activity. Together, we can create a Uganda in which NCDs are no longer a threat to our well-being.

[1] National School Health Policy, 2008

[2] Food and Drug Act, 1964, The Public Health Act

[3] The Food and Drug (Food Fortification) Regulations, 2011, UNBS labelling standard 2014

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