HONG KONG (Reuters) - Heart disease and strokes are set to become the leading killers in Asia, a senior WHO advisor said, urging governments to step in before the illnesses spiral out of control.
Heart disease and strokes have long been regarded as ailments that affect mostly developed countries, but that is no longer true, said Judith Mackay, tobacco-control campaigner and senior policy advisor to the World Health Organization.
“They are major health problems in Asia and they will surely increase unless we take multi-strategy multi-faceted action to prevent them,” said Mackay, who authored the 2004 WHO Atlas of heart disease and strokes.
The two ailments are linked to risk factors like smoking, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity — habits that usually start early in life but can be corrected if proper guidance is given to children and teenagers.
Mackay said that while these were personal responsibilities, governments had a role to play.
“If children start smoking and don’t exercise, give 30 years and the state has to pay for all the medical healthcare. Not just their deaths, you have hospitals, loss of productivity. There is an immense cost to governments,” she said.
“If they have to pay for them at the end, isn’t it justifiable that they step in earlier ... An exercise plan in schools, or dietary advice that becomes compulsory for those who are overweight, I think there are good arguments for it especially if parents can’t or don’t do it.”
Mackay, 63 was named this month as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine for her 25-year-long fight against the tobacco industry.
Worldwide, heart disease and strokes were the top two killers in 2002 and will stay in those positions until at least 2030, responsible for one in every four deaths, according to a WHO-funded report published in November 2006.
The absolute number of deaths from the conditions were highest in China (2.35 million), India (2.3 million) and Russia (1.19 million) in 2002.
Smoking, a switch to fat- and sugar-rich foods from traditional fiber- and rice-based diets, a sedentary lifestyle and possibly genetic factors are the main risk factors.
Mackay cited Singapore as the strongest example of the state stepping in when parents failed to get children’s weight down.
Singapore introduced a program in the 1990s requiring overweight schoolchildren to take extra physical exercise classes, but critics said it exposed children to teasing. The program has since been changed to include all children.
“They are starting to change, less pointing of the finger. Now, everyone does it, not just obese children,” Mackay said.