Health crisis in St Helena as smoking and junk food take toll
THE remote British island of St Helena is facing a health timebomb with seven in 10 adults now overweight or obese, while half of its young people still smoke regularly.
The volcanic outpost in the South Atlantic has a population of just 4,534, and many people suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
According to the island’s Health Directorate, 75 per cent of adults and 40 per cent of children are now overweight or obese, 30 per cent have high blood pressure and 25 per cent have diabetes – in contrast to 6 per cent of Britain’s population.
The problem lies in St Helena’s isolation, with islanders dependent on imported processed food that can survive the long journey from South Africa.
An airport opened last year, but previously locals relied entirely on Royal Mail boat for supplies, which arrived every three weeks.
Lisa Niemand, the directorate’s nursing officer, said: “The intertwined issues of geographical isolation, low resource base, dearth of specialist skills and lifestyle risk factors are a toxic challenge for the health sector here.
“There are large number of smokers – particularly young smokers – prevalent
‘The high incidence of cancers and cardiovascular diseases are a major burden on the health sector’
harmful alcohol use, and the global obesity epidemic has been intensified by the lack of fresh food available on the island and the dependence on imported long-life produce.
“The consequent high incidence of cancers and cardiovascular diseases are a major financial burden on the health sector as we have to offer treatment for many overseas at high cost.”
Last year, Akeem Ali, St Helena’s director of health services, wrote an open letter to public health organisations asking for help. One of the companies to respond was Patientsource, which has created a system that pulls together health records and uses artificial intelligence to track symptoms, spot diseases, detect deterioration and prevent illnesses from getting worse.
Patientsource’s co-founder, former NHS doctor Michael Brooks, said: “Doctors will be able to track progress in real time and identify where to direct resources. The island will jump decades ahead of where they are now.”
St Helena has also begun a campaign called Saints Together, where a heart symbol is placed on healthy food and drinks, and has organised running competitions and health awareness days.
The government is also cracking down on tobacco sales and limiting access to flavoured cigarettes.