Young people on St Helena are being led into the grip of some of the medical world’s biggest killers, a departing doctor has warned.
Dr Ahmad Risk delivered his warning after two months as a temporary “locum” medic in Jamestown – watching parents ply their children with sugary drinks and salty food that could be cutting their lives short.
And he said the whole community must play its part in fending off the disease – including families, teachers and the government.
The incidence of diabetes on St Helena is already five times as high as the global average. It has been blamed for more than six out of ten recent deaths on the island.
But poor diet and lack of exercise among modern-day children could make the scale of the problem even greater in the future.
Research shows obesity in childhood puts people at far greater risk of diabetes and other serious health problems in later life.
That means the sugary drinks and processed food the children consume today is greatly increasing the danger of dying prematurely, decades down the line.
Lack of fresh food makes the problem far more challenging, Dr Risk told Saint FM Community Radio, in an interview broadcast the day after his departure from the island.
He said: “We are bringing up a generation on processed food and canned food. These foods are notorious for their fat content, their sugar content, their salt content.
“And that’s dangerous.
“We are really leading a generation into one of the biggest killers in the medical world: diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.”
On 1 March 2013 there were 645 islanders being treated for the condition out of a population of just over 4,000 – nearly all with the avoidable type-2 strain, which doubles the risk of early death.
St Helena Government has warned that the high cost of treatment is crippling the island’s over-stretched health service, as well as causing a massive social cost – with too many people unable to work because of it.
Officials have taken serious steps to manage diabetes, appointing a specialist nurse running frequent clinics around the island.
But Dr Ahmed – who has 40 years’ medical experience around the world – said action needed to start with the very young.
He said: “I would like to put the responsibility on the family, on the parents and the schools.
“It has to start with the really young ones and it has to start within the home. We need to educate, raise awareness, and make the availability of good food a reality.
But he admitted: “You can’t tell people ‘You must eat fresh fruit and veg’, if they can’t find them or they are too expensive. Frozen veg are okay but not as good as fresh veg.
“So it’s a shared responsibility. The community as a whole – whether it’s government or the entrepreneurs or the industrialists on the island – need to do their share.
“This island used to supply a thousand ships a year. There’s plenty of land, plenty of talent, plenty of people who can can grow things. The island has very fertile soil – you can grow anything you want here.
“I don’t know why this is not happening.”
Lack of exercise among young people was leading to greater levels of obesity, he said.
“I find that the older people actually do more exercise than the younger people. They walk up the hill, and walk down the hill.”
Among adults, high consumption of alcohol is adding yet further to the rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, said Dr Risk.
He predicted that future tourists arriving by air would demand higher levels of health care.
But he said: “We need to think of the Saint population, particularly the young people of St Helena. If we do not look after their health and education now, then we are really being hostage to the future.”
Health effects of childhood obesity – US health website