R23bn in nine years: Will obesity sink SA's healthcare system?

Picture: Lucky Nxumalo
Picture: Lucky Nxumalo

Government has spent more than R23 billion preventing and treating lifestyle illnesses associated with obesity in the past nine years.

Medical experts believe that this figure will continue to rise in the next decade and eventually sink the country’s healthcare system, which is already struggling to cope with the number of people suffering from diabetes and hypertension.

About 7 million people are currently estimated to be suffering from hypertension, which increases the risk of stroke and heart disease, while 3.5 million people have been diagnosed with diabetes – the other big lifestyle-related, life-threatening disease.

Half of all cases of diabetes and hypertension are related to obesity. Statistics further reveal that some types of cancers are increasingly being linked to obesity.

Professor Karen Hofman of the Wits School of Public Health told City Press that if the situation was allowed to continue “the obesity epidemic will sink South Africa’s healthcare system”.

Obesity is a growing problem in South Africa. The country has the highest rate of obesity in sub-Saharan Africa and is ranked among the top 10 countries in the world for numbers of fat people.

The World Health Organisation last year estimated that 70% of women were either obese or overweight while one in four men were also obese or overweight.

Hofman, who has conducted a study into the costs of treating lifestyle diseases in South Africa, explained that obesity-related illnesses such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer had doubled in the past decade. “Very soon, the burden of obesity will overtake HIV,” she said.

Professor Andre Kengne, director of the non-communicable diseases research unit at the Medical Research Council, agreed.

“Projections suggest that in the next few decades non-communicable diseases will overtake infectious diseases as the main cause of suffering and death in developing countries, including South Africa.

“One major implication of this is that the healthcare system has to undergo a complete transformation to cope with the demand for care for non-communicable diseases, which is not necessarily similar to the demand for care for infectious diseases.

“The primary care system in particular, which is the first point of contact for the population within the healthcare system has to be better equipped and staffed to handle the growing number of people with non-communicable diseases,” he explained.

The chairperson of the board of trustees of the country’s second-biggest medical aid, the Government Employees’ Medical Scheme, Zava Rikhotso, raised similar concerns.

“The impact on society, the economy and our health system is staggering and continues to grow at an alarming rate.

“The Council of Medical Schemes estimated that roughly R8 billion will be spent on treating lifestyle-related diseases in South Africa every year from now on,” he said.

“Obese adult workers have been found to take 2.4 times more long-term sick leave, up to 2.8 times higher disability pension and a loss of productivity amounting to 7% more than their healthier counterparts,” he added.

Rikhotso was quoting a local study published in the Occupational Health Southern Africa journal last year.

The study, co-authored by Hofman, found that obese employees cost their companies 50% more in paid time off work than their non-obese colleagues.

Government has already passed regulations to compel manufacturers of everything from breakfast cereals to jelly to cut back on salt content. A 20% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks has also been mooted

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