NCDs: Jamaica's Silent Killer

As Jamaica tries to grapple with an out of control crime problem, much attention is not paid to another, more silent but just as dangerous, killer -  Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NCDs including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease, are collectively responsible for almost 70% of all deaths worldwide. Almost three quarters of all NCD deaths, and 82% of the 16 million people who die prematurely or before reaching 70 years of age, occur in low and middle-income countries like Jamaica.

Director of Non-Communicable Diseases and Injuries Prevention in the Ministry of Health, Dr. Tamu Davidson-Sadler said that data from the Statistical Institute of Jamaica (STATIN) shows that approximately 12,773 Jamaicans died from the four major NCDs in 2014.

“Non-communicable diseases are diseases that are not passed on from person to person and they are chronic in nature, meaning most of them are lifestyle diseases. The most common ones we are seeing are cancers, cardiovascular diseases such as stroke, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma,”

Dr. Davidson-Sadler

The WHO reported in 2006 that 7.9% of Jamaica’s population suffered from diabetes. This meant that almost 150,000 of Jamaican nationals between the ages of  15 and 74 had diabetes. This is an increase from 7.2% in 2000. Twenty-five percent (25%) or more than 450,000 Jamaicans in this age band had hypertension, an increase of almost 5% from 2000.

"We did see an increase in the prevalence of Diabetes and also hypertension based on data that we collected. This increase is due a lot to the prevalence of some major risk factors, of which there are four. Especially for diabetes, the increasing level of physical inactivity and the unhealthy diet which has resulted in obesity, is among the causes of the increase. So we find that the obesity levels are increasing and so the diabetes levels are increasing with it. Based on current trends, we expect the obesity levels to increase even more,"

Dr. Davidson-Sadler

Dr. Davidson-Sadler expressed that the problem is further compounded by persons not knowing that they suffer from a NCD. “One of the reasons NCDs are referred to as the silent killer is because they can go years without showing any symptom or even being detected. Studies have shown that 1 in every 4 person who actually suffer from a NCD do not or took as much as 10 years before finding out that they have it. Also, some conditions are not easily detected or can even be screened for.


The WHO believes that at least 80% of all heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes and over 40% of cancer cases would be prevented if causative risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and the harmful use of alcohol were reduced or completely eliminated. They found that insufficient physical activity results in the death of 3.2 million people or 6% of all natural deaths while raised blood pressure make up 13% of all natural death cases or 7.8% of cases, yearly.

The WHO defines physical activity as any bodily movement produced by skeletal muscles that requires energy expenditure. Worldwide, 31% of adults aged 15 and over were found to be insufficiently active in 2008, with women being more physically inactive than men. It was found that people are generally inactive due to most people remaining seated during occupational and domestic activities and an increase in urbanization resulting in several environmental factors which may discourage participation in physical activities such as violence, high density traffic and lack of parks, sidewalks and sporting or recreational facilities.

Dr. Davidson-Sadler postulates that the high level of physical inactivity among women in Jamaica could be caused by their many responsibilities and so, are unable to find the time. “Many women are caretakers and many of them say they are just too busy to engage in physical activities. There are other reasons like people don’t want to get sweaty or they don’t want to get their hair messed up. Safety is also a factor for people not engaging in physical activities.”

Dr. Davidson-Sadler said that physical activities can benefit individuals who have, or are recovering from, a NCD, reduce the risk of cancer recurrence and mortality for breast, colon and prostate cancers and reduce the risk of having a stroke by 25% - 30%. Studies have shown that physical inactivity in Jamaica causes 12.8% of all mortality and 9% of premature mortality worldwide.

The Ministry of Health said it is looking to significantly reduce the number of Jamaicans developing NCDs by taking more direct steps to encourage  healthier living. Minister of Health Dr. Christopher Tufton said specific focus is to be placed raising Jamaica’s physical activity level to combat the growing rate of NCDs in the country.

“According to reports, if inactivity were not eliminated, but reduced globally by 10% to 25%, more than 1.3 million deaths could be averted each year. This is significant. This would mean a reduced number of Jamaicans developing and dying from these diseases and a reduction in the economic burden the country faces to treat NCDs.”

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