October 11, 2017, Ghana’s obesity epidemic was in the spotlight this week as a hard-hitting long-read in the New York Times reflected on the changing food culture that is leading to expanded waistlines and driving an epidemic of diabetes and heart disease that is threatening to overawe already fragile health systems.
As globalization has accelerated, an emerging middle class has embraced sedentary lifestyles and Western fast food diets. Year on year, new data has reconfirmed the growing scale of the crisis in every country of the world and yet political inaction has been muted.
It is easy to blame the private sector, but should the public health community be exonerated? They have traditionally responded to major public health crises with relatively fitting solutions. To halt millions of children dying from preventable disease every year, a children’s vaccine initiative was set up in the 1990s, and later Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, was established, aspiring to make lifesaving vaccines ubiquitous for children. And, as the HIV epidemic spread, the world responded by setting up a UN agency solely dedicated to tackling the disease and a new Global Fund to drive new resources. But when it comes to the world’s biggest killer diseases—heart disease and diabetes—heralded by obesity, no commensurate action is taken. This is particularly disappointing given that ministers of health—as I learnt from my interactions with 191 delegations as one of the finalists for Director-General of the World Health Organization —are willing and ready to act, and seem to be held back by the lack of an international impetus.
New data released in the Lancet shows that that poor diet is a factor in one in five deaths around the world. People may be living longer, but they are also spending more time in ill health, which is related to diet. Ensuring that people can access quality and nutritious local food is critical, but it’s also about ensuring that when available, people are making the right food decisions for themselves and their families.
Fixing the obesity epidemic means harnessing the strength of all stakeholders to address the problem. As former co-chair of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, I witnessed the progress that can be made by bringing stakeholders together, trust building and working through challenges with one another.
Private sector groups like Yum, that own KFC in Ghana, need to be part of the solution to tackling obesity. This means, the government working with the private sector to encourage more locally sourced, healthy and nutritious products. As I wrote in a recent Lancet piece, a new body, which amongst other things, is empowered to shape markets, especially in low- and middle-income countries, where the obesity epidemic is most acute, could be the catalyst to finally bend the curve on tackling obesity and its related diseases. Ensuring public-private investment is also a top priority. To drive new money, governments and the private sector must be incentivized to do their part.
Ghana’s a bell weather for the problems all low- and middle-income countries will have to tackle. Next week marks World Obesity Day and with the latest round of data indicating ongoing failure to tackle obesity, the world has a stark choice to make: reform quickly or be prepared for a public health crisis that decimates already fragile health systems.