Concern is mounting about the growing prevalence of chronic diseases more common in affluent nations, such as diabetes and hypertension, as health experts warn that Cambodians urgently need to improve their lifestyles.
In an opinion piece published Tuesday, World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan cited Cambodia as an example of the havoc wreaked on the developing world by the industrialization of food production, globalization of the food supply, and its distribution and marketing channels.
“Chronic diseases, long considered the companions of affluent societies, have changed places,” she wrote in the article, published in the Business Daily Africa, adding that people the world over are increasingly eating similarly unhealthy diets.
An as yet unpublished study conducted by the Cambodian Diabetes Association has found evidence that within a few years the national rate of diabetes could double to almost one sixth of the population.
Lim Keuky, president of the CDA, said the study showed a larger than expected prevalence of the illness in rural areas in particular.
As much as 10 percent of the over-25 population in rural areas had pre-diabetic conditions, which would likely, if left untreated, develop into diabetes, the study found.
About 5 percent of the rural adult population is diabetic at present, compared to 10 percent in urban areas, he said.
But Lim Keuky predicted that within a few years the incidence of diabetes among the adult population in rural areas could be as high as 15 percent, with urban areas at 20 percent.
He added that in rural areas, where affluence and sedentary lifestyles have come more slowly, pre-diabetic conditions are much more prevalent than full-blown diabetes. In urban areas, however, they appear in approximately equal portions of the population.
While it is difficult to calculate the current total number of diabetics in Cambodia, Lim Keuky offered a conservative estimate of 300,000 individuals.
Yel Daravuth, a WHO officer with responsibility for non-communicable diseases, said the incidence of hypertension or high blood pressure-25 percent in urban communities and 12 percent in rural areas, according to a 2005 WHO report-also demonstrated that people must pay more attention to their diets and get more exercise.
“The lifestyle here is bad,” he said. “Cambodian people consume too much salt and alcohol, and they smoke too much.”
While type 1 diabetes is largely genetic, Yel Daravuth noted, type 2, which is far more prevalent in Cambodia, was at least in part due to an unhealthy lifestyle.
If more is not done to raise awareness of the root causes of hypertension and diabetes, resulting problems would swamp the health system in the future, he said.
“These illnesses need long-term treatment, and people can develop numerous complications,” he said.
Health Ministry Preventive Medicine Department Deputy Director Thach Varoeun said the government is taking steps to deal with the problem.
Non-communicable diseases are being prioritized more by the ministry in its new action plan, he said, which was previously more focused on communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and dengue fever.
Two clinics specializing in diabetes prevention and treatment are already open in Battambang and Kompong Thom provinces, while three more clinics are slated to open in Prey Veng, Pursat and Kampong Cham provinces within the next few months, Thach Varoeun said.
The clinics are pilot projects that, if successful, will expand into a national network beginning in 2010, he said.