Public health = economic health

  • Letters
  • Saturday, 11 Jul 2020

WE are all familiar with the saying “Health is wealth”. Nowadays, it couldn’t ring any truer. The Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed this. We have witnessed how the disruption to public health has badly rattled the global economy. Even the most developed economies have not been spared from a virus which has yet to be tamed.

All are waiting for a vaccine. But the only “vaccine” available currently is physical distancing. It is the only option at our disposal to break the chain of infection.

Countries that have taken lightly the call to observe distancing, prescribed by the World Health Organisation, are experiencing severe economic stress and their healthcare systems are being overwhelmed by the explosive rise in infected patients. Countries such as Brazil and the United States have been paraded as examples of how not to manage a pandemic.

The message is loud and clear. The world must never take lightly issues that concern public health. The economic repercussions of doing so can be devastating, as clearly demonstrated now.

While infectious diseases have dramatically proven to be a scourge on economic progress, non-communicable diseases, or NCDs, can also be damaging albeit with more localised impact. Examples of NCDs include hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, has been singled out as a common NCD. It is a widely researched subject. With the advancement in medical research, managing hypertension through medication and other therapy is now possible. The problem is, many may not be aware of this. In fact, many are not even aware that they have hypertension. Therefore, creating awareness can improve the public’s understanding of how hypertension can be managed.

Many long term population studies have been conducted to get to the root of the problem and some are still ongoing. Each country has its own unique lifestyles and nutritional patterns. This makes the results from one country not necessarily applicable to others. Malaysia currently hosts one such study, funded by the Newton-Ungku Omar collaborative financing between Malaysia and Britain. The study, which is branded as “Respond”, brings together a few universities in the country in partnership with universities in the Philippines and the London School of Tropical Hygiene.

Led locally by the vice-chancellor of UCSI University, the Malaysian team comprises researchers from Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Teknologi Mara. Team members are made up of researchers from the medical and social science disciplines.

The study, which is now in the last lap, involves capturing relevant lifestyle data from four states in Malaysia. In each state, the study interviews two groups, one in a rural area and the other from an urban community.

According to initial findings, it is clear that ignorance about the dangers of hypertension among the population is high. Also, there is not that big a difference between rural and urban folks when it comes to awareness.

There is no doubt that the findings of the study will shed more light on the growing incidence of hypertension in the country. This will help improve the nation’s public health policy on NCDs.

PROFESSOR DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM , Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia

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