In September 2011, the United Nations launched an all out attack on non-communicable diseases — the leading cause of death in the world today.
Also known as “NCDs”, non-communicable diseases are of long duration and generally slow progression. The four main types are cardiovascular diseases (like heart attacks and stroke), cancer, chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructed pulmonary disease and asthma), and diabetes.
According to a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2013, every year 38 million people (including 28 million in developing countries) die from NCDs. The diseases also cause disability, misery and premature death — nearly 16 million deaths from NCDs occur before the age of 70. Over the next decade, mortality from NCDs is forecast to increase by 17 per cent.
However, non-communicable diseases are potentially preventable.
The key is in addressing the risk factors. Unhealthy diets, a lack of physical activity, tobacco use, and the harmful use of alcohol increase one’s chances of developing NCDs. The WHO estimates that if these major risks were eliminated, around 75 per cent of heart disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes would be prevented, as well as 40 per cent of cancer.
Recognising a global problem
In its September 2011 meeting, the UN General Assembly called for a multi-pronged campaign by governments, industry and civil society to set up global, regional and national level plans needed to curb the risk factors.
The Ismaili Nutrition Centre is one way in which the Ismaili Muslim community is contributing to tackling this global problem. Providing a self-help solution for the Jamat, the Nutrition Centre is also a civil society action that helps everyone tackle the challenge of unhealthy diets.
As with others in the global population, NCDs are a serious problem within the worldwide Ismaili community. In fact, for some parts of the Jamat, the threat may be heightened — for example the United Kingdom government identifies South Asians as being at particular risk.
There cannot be many members of the Jamat who do not know someone who has suffered heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or stroke, or who died prematurely from such diseases. In a number of recent communications, Mawlana Hazar Imam has raised concerns about this global Jamati problem.
Interrupting the progression of NCDs
The Nutrition Centre is a credible, authoritative source of knowledge that directly addresses one of the four risk factors listed by the WHO for global action — unhealthy diets.
NCDs usually progress in stages — from risks, to diseases, to their adverse consequences, including premature death. Such a sequence may start early in life and damage to the body may take many years, even decades to occur. Thus, efforts to prevent this progression need to start early in life and be sustained over years and decades.
Eating good food is an enormous pleasure and an integral part of our quality of life. We can continue to eat and enjoy tasty, traditional foods that are part of our heritage, even while interrupting the progression of NCDs.
The Nutrition Centre provides information on cooked foods eaten by Ismailis, including how they are cooked and their nutritional values, which are calculated using robust research-based methods. Such knowledge can help the Jamat and others to assess whether their diets are unhealthy, and if so, how to improve them. It can help avoid or reduce the risks of developing NCDs. For those who already have conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes, it offers ways to help reduce them or prevent them from getting worse.
The Nutrition Centre can help us to achieve a permanent lifestyle change in what we eat on a regular basis. However, good quality knowledge is only the first step. For it to genuinely help, we need to access it regularly, understand it and use it to change our behaviour in a sustainable way.
Dr Azim Lakhani MA BMBCh FFPH, is an accredited medical specialist in Public Health. He has been involved in assessment of levels of NCDs and impact of interventions on them at national and local levels in England for over 30 years. Dr Lakhani also served as Chairman of the Ismaili Leaders’ International Forum between 2003 – 2012.