Lessons learnt from Covid-19 pandemic to tackle non-communicable diseases epidemic in Malaysia — Doctors of Public Health candidates from University of Malaya

AUGUST 15 — We agonise over the findings from the National Health and Morbidity Survey in 2019. Around one in every five Malaysian adults have diabetes, one in three have high blood pressure, four in ten have high blood cholesterol and one in two are overweight or obese. To make it worse, half of us with diabetes and high blood pressure and two-third of us with high blood cholesterol are unaware of our conditions! Many of us are therefore literally walking time bombs, waiting for that dreaded moment of heart attack and stroke to strike.

“Alas, this kind of things only happen to so and so (never us), and even if it does occur, it will be many years down the road. I rather not know it now and focus on the more important stuffs first”, we self-rationalise.

Take a moment to reflect, do we not hear recently about someone we know (or their family/friends) who suddenly died or suffered from a heart attack or stroke? Perhaps the feeds appeared on our social media or we gossiped during our leisure time.

Malaysia has done relatively well during this Covid-19 pandemic but at the same time we must remain vigilant in our efforts to address the non-communicable diseases (NCD). Here are the three lessons learnt that can be applied to tackle NCD epidemics in Malaysia.

1. Sense of urgency

The problems with NCD (like diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, cancer etc.) and NCD risk factors (obesity, smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity etc.) are huge in Malaysia and these are definitely not something new. We can see stark difference in our response; in Covid-19 outbreak, people get worried to the point of panic buying in some areas. In NCD epidemics, there is a clear apathy in many of us, even among those diagnosed with the diseases.

As individuals, we should delay no more. Do our annual health screening. Eat responsibly. Do aerobic exercise for at least 150 minutes per week (i.e. five times per week for 30 minutes) and biweekly strength training sessions. For those with the mean, power or responsibility to affect change, please do what is needed, with an added dose of urgency.

2. Massive actions

movement control order (MCO), Enhanced MCO, mobilisation of army, border closure and compulsory isolation of all positive cases are some of the actions taken in containing the Covid-19 pandemic. Such massive and often difficult decisions are some of the factors critical to flatten our epidemic curve.

Similarly, the NCD epidemics must be tackled from all levels, using multipronged evidence-based recommendations such as those by the World Health Organisation. Hard policies where needed should be pressed forward despite resistance by interest groups. At individual level, we should lead a healthy lifestyle, be a role model and educate our family/friends (using the correct information) and voice our demand for a health-promoting environment (i.e. healthy food options, physical environment, health services etc.)

3. Collaborative effort and leadership

During this Covid-19 pandemic, we all hail the frontliners; from medical, police, army, RELA officers to Grab Food deliverers etc. What is clear is that everyone must play their respective role in containing the highly virulent virus, hence the tag ‘everyone is a frontliner’. Similarly, strong collaboration is needed for the prevention and control of NCD. The responsibility for health must not fall on the shoulder of Ministry of Health alone. Every sector is health sector and health aspect must be considered in all policies i.e. ‘Health in All Policies’.

Our leaders have been praised internationally for their leadership roles during Covid-19 pandemic. Such strong and decisive leadership (especially in making difficult decisions) can also lead the whole nation to combat NCD epidemics.

Imagine what will happen to us, our children and Malaysia in ten or twenty years if no urgent large-scale comprehensive efforts are done now to prevent and control NCDs and NCD risk factors. We can think of a future society where adults call in sick more frequently and unable to work at optimum capacity during their most productive years in life. Worse, many of us will die prematurely, leaving behind our young children and family members. The negative health consequences extend beyond our immediate family; our economy suffers from low productivity and our national building plan gets disrupted. Not to mention the vast amount of money and resources needed to be provided by the government to cater for the sick adults.

In Covid-19 pandemic, we aim to flatten the curve and to achieve zero transmission. In NCD epidemics, we must proactively prevent them by addressing the NCD risk factors in Malaysia.

* Dr Wan Kim Sui, Dr Peter Tok Seah Keng, Dr Mohd Fauzy Samsudin, Dr Nuraini Aziz and Dr Vinura Venugopal are Doctor of Public Health candidates from the Social and Preventive Medicine Department, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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