The World Health Organization has always played a crucial role in supporting the Sri Lankan healthcare system with its years of dedicated service, focussed on the improvement of child nutrition and maternal healthcare, creating awareness against non-communicable diseases and empowering the healthcare system in Sri Lanka. Recognized as the highest governing body for health in the South East Asian region, the WHO Regional Committee for South East Asia will be hosted in Sri Lanka from September 5-9, with the participation of delegations and Ministers of Health representing the 11 Member States of the South East Asian region.
The RC meeting is hosted annually to discuss important health issues that are a major concern on a regional and global scale.
Organized by WHO, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, a media workshop titled ‘National Media Workshop on Health Priorities for Sri Lanka and the WHO Regional Committee for South East Asia’ was hosted in Colombo recently. Speaking at the event, Director General of Health Dr. Palitha Mahipala said the WHO was established in 1948 to respond to global health issues. As such, the first regional office of the WHO was established in the South East Asia region in 1948. “So far, there were six regions that were identified by WHO in 1948. Today, we have 11 Member States in the South East Asia region, with the exception of Afghanistan. These member countries include Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Timor Leste, Thailand, Maldives, North Korea, Sri Lanka and Nepal.” During the event, the Director General highlighted the significant achievements and challenges Sri Lanka currently encountered in the healthcare sector, while strongly emphasizing the need to create more awareness on NCD-related health problems in Sri Lanka.
NCDs: a major challenge in the Sri Lankan health sector
The health system in Sri Lanka has evolved over the years to include various strategies useful in the elimination of various communicable diseases and other health issues evident in the country. For instance, the immunization programme in Sri Lanka is recognized internationally as the finest immunization programme in the world.
“No cases of Polio or neo-natal tetanus have been reported in Sri Lanka since their elimination in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Currently, we are heading in the direction of eliminating rabies and measles. The WHO recently acknowledged the elimination of Lymphatic Filariasis as a public health problem in Sri Lanka. Moreover, Sri Lanka is expecting to receive the certification for Malaria elimination from the WHO at the RC meeting scheduled for this week. Sri Lanka has thus achieved a great feat in restraining communicable diseases- and we intend to highlight our achievements and activities in the health sector at the forthcoming RC meeting- in order to benefit the 11 Member States in the South-East Asian region” Dr. Mahipala said.
Adding that the current Primary Healthcare Model in Sri Lanka was a very important model in the health sector, Dr. Mahipala suggested that other nations also could employ a similar model for optimum healthcare services.
“Our government has introduced Healthy Lifestyle Centres in hospitals. These centres are aimed not only at patients but at the general public as well. A person can get himself screened at the Healthy Lifestyle Centre for Body Mass Index, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar free of charge. In case someone is identified with a particular disease/diseases, the centre will refer the individual for further medical treatment. Sri Lanka is one of the countries that use eighty percent of pictorial warning to dissuade people from tobacco use which is detrimental to health” he said.
Noting that non-communicable diseases have witnessed a phase of demographical transition throughout the decades, Dr. Mahipala explained that the average life expectancy of Sri Lankan females has increased under the present context.
Thus, the average life expectancy of Sri Lankan females is believed to reach eighty years by 2020. “The WHO has predicted that by 2020, the number of deaths due to cancer would be more than the number of deaths due to heart disease. Today, 38 million people are dying due to non-communicable diseases, globally. 422 million diabetic cases are reported globally. Seventy percent of deaths in Sri Lanka are mainly due to NCDs. Therefore, the biggest health challenge currently faced by Sri Lanka revolves around how to restrain non-communicable diseases. Currently, the Government of Sri Lanka has taken a number of policy actions to address the issues of NCDs in the country” Dr. Mahipala added.
Non- communicable diseases in Sri Lanka
Shedding more light on the NCDs in Sri Lanka, WHO National Consultant on NCDs Prof. Nalika Gunawardena said communicable diseases were chronic, lifestyle-related and non-contagious. Moreover, among the many non-communicable diseases that do exist, few are considered major NCDs. Cardio-vascular diseases, high blood pressure, strokes, diabetes, lung diseases such as asthma and cancer are considered prominent NCDs that impose a threat to the well-being of an individual.
“According to statistics received from Government hospitals, nearly seventy percent of deaths reported were due to some form of NCD. Relatively young people are the most vulnerable to NCDs, resulting in premature deaths in the country. It should be noted that these are people who would contribute to the development of the country. NCDs could lead into a lot of complications if uncontrolled and damage other organs of the body, such as kidneys, liver, eyes, blood vessels and nerves. As a country that provides free healthcare, our healthcare system is committed to looking after those diagnosed with NCDs throughout their lives with followup medical care services. Complications ensuing from NCDs could result in the suffering of both the individual and the society.
There is no cure for NCDs except control. In order to prevent or control these diseases, individuals need to work on the risk factors involved in NCDs. There are four main risk factors with regard to NCDs: unhealthy food trends, physical inactivity, tobacco use and alcohol use. Among the innovative ideas introduced to Sri Lanka to address the problem of NCDs, community gymnasiums and free sports services offered by officers of the Ministry of Sport are prominent. In addition to this, the National Cancer Control Programme runs a National Cancer Early Detection Centre which offers a screening for all types of cancers in the country. Public awareness must be created, concerning the risk factors involved with NCDs and screening services should be promoted” Dr. Gunawardena said.
Regionally, the prevalence of NCDs is high in some parts of the world. Thus, sufficient awareness on NCDs and communicable diseases are considered the need of the hour. Sharing his views at the media workshop, WHO National Professional Officer for Communicable Diseases Dr. Janakan Navaratnasingam added that NCDs constitute thirty percent of diseases that generally afflict people according to global statistics. While acknowledging that NCDs still remained a definite challenge in the Sri Lankan health sector, he noted that Sri Lanka had at the very least succeeded in curbing the rise of communicable diseases to a large extent.
“When we look at the disease pattern in our country, communicable diseases were very common in the past. However, at present the number of communicable diseases reported has significantly dropped. The morbidity and mortality rates due to communicable disease have tremendously decreased. For instance, Sri Lanka successfully eradicated small pox in 1972, diphtheria in 1991, Polio in 1993, leprosy in 1995 and Lymphatic Filariasis in 2016. Following these successes in curbing the spread of communicable diseases, currently we are awaiting the Malaria elimination certification from the WHO” Dr. Navaratnasingam added.
Stating that good personal hygiene and sanitation were important to maintain a healthy living, Dr. Navaratnasingam added that it was also important to ensure that one’s environment was clean and that potential mosquito breeding grounds were eradicated. His general advice to the public included refraining from self-medication, ensuring food safety, constantly being updated on diseases, symptoms and prevention and routine immunization of children and adults whenever necessary.
Pix by Damith Wickramasinghe