How Middle East can turn the tide against chronic diseases

How Middle East can turn the tide against chronic diseases

Middle East and North Africa region finds itself grappling with a growing health crisis. (Reuters)
Middle East and North Africa region finds itself grappling with a growing health crisis. (Reuters)
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Life expectancy in Arab countries has been steadily on the rise, which is a significant achievement for the region. However, amid the celebrations of longer life, an insidious epidemic is making its presence felt — a surge in chronic diseases. From cardiovascular diseases to diabetes, cancer and respiratory illnesses, the Middle East and North Africa region finds itself grappling with a growing health crisis that demands urgent attention.
The World Health Organization recently delivered a sobering message, revealing that noncommunicable diseases are responsible for a staggering 70 percent of deaths in the region. This statistic is more than just a number; it means that seven out of every 10 lives are being claimed by illnesses that are, to a large extent, preventable. Generally speaking, this is not merely a health issue, it is a societal challenge that impacts economies, strains healthcare systems and undermines the overall well-being of the MENA region.
In the context of healthcare dynamics within the Arab world, notable progress has been observed in certain countries, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait. These nations have demonstrated commendable advancements in enhancing their healthcare systems and proactively addressing the surge in chronic diseases. Their concerted efforts reflect a commitment to mitigating the impact of these health challenges. However, it is essential to acknowledge that the health landscape across the region is not uniform. While some countries are making significant strides, others face challenges and may lag behind in effectively responding to the burgeoning health crisis associated with chronic diseases.
Each country needs its leaders to oversee a collective effort to address the root causes of these chronic diseases and implement strategies that focus not only on treatment but, more importantly, on prevention. So, what is fueling this health upheaval? It is not solely a matter of genetics or inevitable fate, it is about lifestyle choices, environmental factors and a lack of targeted healthcare initiatives. The region must confront this issue head-on and implement strategies that move beyond merely treating symptoms to actively preventing these diseases in the first place.
The first step to address this issue requires a paradigm shift in public health initiatives. The emphasis needs to transition from reactive healthcare to proactive measures that actively prevent the onset of chronic diseases.
For example, picture a world where doctors are not just healers but partners in promoting healthier lifestyles. Envision a society where preventive healthcare is as routine as your morning coffee. It is not an idealistic dream; it is a necessity. The “2024 Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics” report, published by the American Heart Association, delineates the progress achieved in diminishing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, as exemplified by the reduction in cigarette smoking. However, despite substantial advancements in strategies for preventing heart disease and strokes, the benefits have not been fully realized, according to Dr. Seth Martin, a cardiologist affiliated with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.

From the perils of a sedentary lifestyle to the consequences of a poor diet, knowledge is the first line of defense.

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Martin, who also serves as chair of the 43-member group responsible for the report, emphasized the disparities in translating effective interventions into everyday medical practice. He stressed the imperative for innovative approaches in implementation to bridge these gaps, emphasizing the need for transformative strategies to maximize positive outcomes for patients.
One important issue to focus on is the fact that prevention starts with awareness. This means that governments and health organizations must launch widespread campaigns to educate the public about the risk factors associated with chronic diseases. From the perils of a sedentary lifestyle to the consequences of a poor diet, knowledge is the first line of defense.
Nevertheless, awareness alone is not enough. We need policies that support and encourage healthier choices. This means creating environments that make it easier for people to choose healthier lifestyles. Parks and recreational areas, bike lanes and accessible gym facilities — these are not just luxuries, they are investments in the long-term health of the population.
Furthermore, workplaces, where most of us spend a significant portion of our waking hours, must also play a pivotal role. It is time for companies to prioritize employee health by offering wellness programs, providing ergonomic workspaces and fostering a culture that values both physical and mental well-being.
Now, let us address the elephant in the room — diet. The MENA region boasts a rich culinary heritage, but the modern diet has veered into dangerous territory. Fast food, sugary drinks and processed snacks have become dietary staples, leading to an alarming increase in obesity and related diseases. As a result, it is time to rediscover the balance between tradition and modernity, creating a fusion that not only tantalizes tastebuds but also nourishes the body.
Last but not least, healthcare interventions are critical in the battle against chronic diseases. Regular health checkups, early detection and the effective management of conditions can significantly reduce the burden on healthcare systems and improve the quality of life for individuals. Investing in state-of-the-art medical facilities and training healthcare professionals to address the specific challenges posed by noncommunicable diseases should be a top priority.
In conclusion, while certain nations, notably the Gulf states, have made substantial progress, others have lagged behind. And, while life expectancy in the MENA region is increasing, we can also turn the tide against chronic diseases and pave the way for a healthier, more vibrant future through targeted public health initiatives, preventive measures, lifestyle changes and improved healthcare interventions. It is not just a matter of living longer; it is about living better. The choice is ours to make and the path forward is clear. Addressing the root causes of chronic diseases creates a future where longer life is accompanied by a higher quality of life. It may be a challenge, but this is a challenge we must embrace for the well-being of generations to come.

• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. X: @Dr_Rafizadeh

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