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Ken-Ya Defeat Diabetes?

"In the lead up to International Quit Soda Day (IQSD), an event started by our partner Dr. Kevin Strong to educate children on the health risks of soda consumption, I met with members of the Kenya Defeat Diabetes Association (KDDA) to discuss their experiences of living with diabetes and hypertension and what they think should be done to curb the spread of non-communicable diseases (NCDs)."

In Kenya the prevalence of diabetes has more than doubled in the last 3 decades, with 1 in every 17 Kenyans being obese today [1]. These numbers are only set to follow the global trend and continue to rise, as fast food, soda and sedentary lifestyles continue to take their toll. In developing countries, such as Kenya, which already face a heavy burden from infectious diseases, the growing numbers of people suffering from NCDs is alarming. The health system is already severely strained, with a shortage of funds, medication, doctors and nurses. In France, hypertension treatment and medication is estimated to cost over 500 euros [2] per year and diabetic people are estimated to spend 2.3 times more on healthcare than non-diabetic people [3]. As such, the additional financial strain incurred by the increase in prevalence of chronic conditions will leave an already hard-pressed health system struggling to keep up with demands. The Kenyan government is boldly striving towards universal health coverage, but with 44% of the population living below the poverty line [4] and rampant corruption, how does the country even begin to tackle the issues of NCDs?

Like most problems, the solution is to tackle things bit by bit. I gathered from speaking to the members of the KDDA that many of them did not know much about diabetes and hypertension until they were diagnosed. Increasing awareness and dispelling myths surrounding these diseases, such as “only fat people suffer from diabetes” and “you need to look ill to be ill” are imperative. Only by providing people with the right information about diet and exercise can individuals make informed choices about their lifestyles. To this end, everyone was interested in the work GHD is doing in collaboration with Dunk The Junk, as the KDDA crew recognised the importance of teaching healthy habits, such as avoiding soda, while children are young, so they can make healthy life choices.

An interesting theme that emerged from the KDDA team was how some of them had grown up in rural areas and adopted unhealthy habits upon migrating to Nairobi. To fit in to the “Nairobi lifestyle” and to not seem “village” they adopted diets that included a lot of soda, alcohol and junk food. African diets are traditionally very healthy, yet people are abandoning the healthy diets they grew up with for the quick, trendy and yes, even tasty, fast food chains. The Western fast food chains that have begun to spread across the continent have been followed by a spread in NCDs. However, upon diagnosis with diabetes and hypertension, everyone reverted to the more traditional diets, opting for large portions of fruit and vegetables and cutting soda and alcohol out of their diet completely. Our hope is that with increased awareness about diet, nutrition and exercise, the next generation will maintain healthy lifestyles and never see the onset of NCDs.

The introduction of a sugar tax, similar to the one recently introduced in England, sparked mixed reactions. Some people were all for the tax, whereas others thought that it would be better to focus on other endeavours as the tax would never come into place due to corruption and the power large corporations have over governments. Be that as it may, everyone agreed that the Kenyan government should be doing more to prevent the spread of NCDs. One suggestion was to make soda companies label their products with similar health warnings to those on cigarette labels. People thought soda companies needed to be more transparent about the chemicals and sugar in their products, so that if people chose to continue drinking their products they did so in full knowledge of the health risks involved. The founder of KDDA, Reuben, actually tried to go to court to implement this idea, but due to a lack of funds and intense opposition from big soda companies he wasn’t able to pursue the matter further.

It was amazing and humbling spending time with people who were so willing to share their stories and experiences about living with NCDs in the hope of creating change in the next generation. Reuben constantly emphasised that if our work prevented just one person from becoming diabetic he would be happy. I truly believe with the dedication of groups such as KDDA and people like Dr. Kevin Strong we will be able to educate kids about the dangers of soda in new and creative ways, and hence create a sustained reduction in the spread of NCDs in Kenya.

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