PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad -- The Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) is working on a multi-level programme designed to promote healthy weight and reverse the scourge of childhood obesity in the region. During a media briefing after the agency’s three-day strategic planning workshop, CARPHA’s Director of Research, Training and Policy Development, Dr Donald Simeon, revealed that CARPHA will launch a pilot project with its member states in 2014. The project will be geared at changing the unhealthy lifestyles of children informed by scientific evidence of what works.
According to Simeon, this region has one of the highest rates of obesity in children and adults in the world. He said that recent studies throughout the Caribbean showed 20-35 per cent of adolescents as being overweight or obese, with obesity accounting for as much as 15 per cent. He explained that this is mainly due to their poor dietary intakes and lack of physical activity. He was particularly concerned about the remarkably low intakes of fruits and vegetables and high levels of consumption of carbonated beverages in school children. However, he noted that this was not an individual behaviour issue, but one of obesogenic environments.
In this regard, CARPHA is customizing a multi-sectoral programme that was successful in changing the lifestyles of children leading to sustained decreases in childhood obesity in Northern France. As an organisation that promotes evidence based action, Simeon said that the French model has been identified as a unique best practice in the management of childhood obesity. He pointed out that it was not only sustainable, but the programme utilized an approach that included participation from policy makers as well as the grass roots level which includes communities, schools and families.
However, Simeon cautioned that results will not occur overnight. He added that there will also be a need for significant support and investment from both the public and private sectors for the programme to be successful.
Chief medical officer of St Kitts and Nevis, Dr Patrick Martin, described the challenge faced in his country where 45 percent of adults and 15 percent of children are obese.
He said, “We cannot tackle, by ourselves, the people who are deliberately targeting our young people to consume obesogenic foods and beverages, smoke tobacco and marijuana and use alcohol to excess.”
However, he was confident that regionally, through CARPHA, the increasing rates of obesity could be reversed.
Technical adviser in the Director General’s Office in Haiti, Dr Lourdes Marie Belotte, said Haiti is also grappling with the growing problem of obesity and NCDs. She is seeking CARPHA’s assistance particularly in the areas of prevention and health promotion so that Haiti can avoid some of the problems other countries have faced.
Dr Joy St John, chief medical officer of Barbados, stated that within the global monitoring framework for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), CARPHA is the only public health institution in the region with the capacity for surveillance, although she indicated the need for that ability to be strengthened to ensure achievement of the agency’s goal of 25 percent reduction in mortality from avoidable NCDs by 2025.
In charting the direction of CARPHA, decision-makers from 21 countries across the region and partners in health, such as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), discussed strategies for addressing critical public health issues that affect the region.
Executive director of CARPHA, Dr James Hospedales emphasized the importance of investing in public health and revealed some of the current initiatives, as well as those which the agency will embark upon in 2014. These included:
• A Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Programme (FELTP), in collaboration with the US Centers for Disease Control, to build capacity in public health and train officials on how to respond to threats and emergencies
• Discussions with IMPACS and the United Nations (UN) on reducing the level of injuries and violence from a public health stand point. This will involve strategies to address alcohol control, conflict resolution and gender sensitivity training
• A joint planning meeting with the Caribbean Tourism Organisation (CTO) for collaboration on tourism and health, given the importance of tourism to regional economies. This will include training in food safety and environmental management and the implementation of monitoring of rapid response systems
Dr Rohit Doon, public health adviser at the ministry of health in Trinidad and Tobago, expressed satisfaction following the three-day meeting. He said that CARPHA is an asset to the Caribbean and is on its way to being synonymous with professional excellence, academic competence and leadership in public health. He agreed with his St Kitts and Nevis colleague, Dr Martin, who said “good health is the principal driver of our development” and urged his CARICOM counterparts to invest in health to improve the health and economic well-being of the population.