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Young People Should Be a Main Focus in the Fight against NCDs

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are medical conditions that are not caused by infectious agents

Kenya is experiencing an upsurge in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) with current estimates showing that NCDs account for a third of the of disease burden. Cardiovascular diseases, including hypertension, heart attacks, and stroke, account for most NCD related deaths in Kenya, followed by cancers, chronic lung diseases and diabetes. Majority of NCDs are the result of four behavioural risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diets and harmful use of alcohol.

Statistics from the World Health Organisation paint a grim reality estimating the probability of a young person dying early from an NCD in Kenya at 18%. NCDs have become a major public health concern with far reaching social and economic implications in terms of health care needs, lost productivity and premature deaths. Of greater concern however, is the prevalence and risk exposure for adolescents and young people below the age of 25. This particular age sets are vulnerable to the risky behaviours that include tobacco use, physical inactivity, harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets stemming from the high consumption of processed foods.

Despite the evident upsurge in NCDs among young people, inadequate focus has been directed towards NCD prevention programmes within the health sector. This is further compounded by the fact that public expenditure on health, as a proportion of the total government expenditure is worryingly low. Kenya’s health care expenditure has remained below 10% since 2002, well below the stipulated 15% as per the 2001 Abuja Declaration by African Heads of State and Government.

Kenya’s health care system faces numerous challenges that hamper NCD prevention efforts.  One of the major challenges is the availability of accurate data on the burden of NCDs in particular among the youth, greatly constraining programmatic and policy interventions.

This notwithstanding, greater emphasis should be directed towards ensuring that the youth are part of the NCD discourse to raise awareness on the risks facing them. As part of the emerging ‘New Power,’ young citizens are more empowered and enthusiastic than previous generations to participate in shaping their everyday lives especially in relation to their health.

If viewed as complementary to the technical expertise that older generations might offer, the voices of the youth may offer new perspectives, media channels and solutions in tackling NCDs.

If empowered, the youth can become the driving force behind the attainment of higher health standards. Unfortunately, high quality and youth-friendly services along with access to relevant and reliable information is a preserve of a few. Young people are often targeted by companies advertising unhealthy food, tobacco or alcohol use, with many more growing up in environments that are not favourable for the adoption of healthy lifestyles.

Actively engaging with and mobilising young people for prevention and control of NCDs will provide a platform to share examples of meaningful and effective engagement, to promote better health practises ranging from diet choice to exercise. Empowering young people by making them count and giving them a platform to raise their own voice to address the challenges that face them will enable them live up to their full potential. Such engagement can lay the foundation for youth participation as agents of change and give rise to youth driven advocacy towards addressing NCD risk factors.

Kenya needs to implement a full range of prevention strategies that will build positive, healthy attitudes and reduce NCD risk behaviours among its young. Successfully implementing such strategies requires coordination, creative thinking, collaboration across sectors, and most critically, the involvement of young people.

Equally important is filling critical information gaps through regular data collection efforts, and conducting policy and program evaluations to help identify the most-effective interventions for the country. Preventing the early onset of NCDs will enable youth to reach their full potential, increase productivity and decrease future health care costs, in turn resulting to economic growth in the country.

Dr Lilian Mbau is Project Manager, Healthy Heart Africa Project and NCD Programme Specialist at Amref Health Africa

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