Kenya: To Deter Ncds, Mind the Youth and Adolescents

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are among the major health and development challenges of the 21st Century. They inflict pain on the socioeconomic fabric of, particularly low- and middle-income countries. Amid the fight to curb the spread of Covid-19, Kenya cannot afford to ignore the increasing burden of NCDs.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) cites NCDs, a leading cause of death, as responsible for 38 million (68 per cent) of the 56 million deaths in 2012. More than 40 per cent of these, 16 million, were premature deaths under the age of 70. Almost three-quarters of NCD deaths (28 million) and the majority of premature deaths (82 per cent) occurred in low- and middle-income countries.

Kenya is experiencing a growing NCD epidemic. The Ministry of Health's Division of NCDs reports show chronic diseases already account for more than half and more than 55 per cent of hospital admissions and deaths, respectively, in the country.

These high numbers are a result of factors that are largely preventable by changing unhealthy behaviours that contribute to the growing NCD burden.

Risk behaviours

The key risk behaviours among youth include tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet. Often, these are initiated and maintained during adolescence or young adulthood and pose the risk for NCDs later in life.

Quite worrying is the increasing prevalence of drug and substance abuse. Nacada's "2018 National Survey on the Status of Alcohol and Drug Abuse among Primary School Pupils in Kenya" report puts the average age of onset of drug or substance abuse at 11 years. A similar report indicates that 3.8 secondary school students were using alcohol.

Window of opportunity

WHO indicates that 70 per cent of premature deaths in adults are the result of behaviours from adolescence. Therefore, a window of opportunity exists for Kenya to now tackle the four key risk behaviours in its bulging young population to reduce the risks of being overwhelmed and incapacitated to address them in the coming decades.

Now is the time for the country to implement a full range of prevention strategies that will build positive health behaviours and reduce NCD risk behaviours among adolescents and youth.

This year, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha has presided over the launch of two critical documents in NCDs prevention: "Physical Education and Sport Policy" and the "National Guidelines for Alcohol and Substance Use Prevention and Management in Basic Education Institutions". That is a step forward but only if well implemented, which requires coordination, creative thinking, cross-sector collaboration and youth involvement.

Should the government consider these critical measures, the country would be assured of a decrease in health costs, increased productivity and high economic development.

Mr Fatinato is a project assistant at Centre for the Study of Adolescence.

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