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Protecting The African Heartbeat: Why Africans Need to Prioritise Cardiovascular Health

September 29, 2023

The heart is the centre of human physiology. Quietly beating around 100,000 times a day, it sustains us by pumping nutrient and oxygen-rich blood through our circulatory systems, ensuring we are able to walk, talk, work – live.

As we commemorate World Heart Day this September, we are reminded of the importance of heart health and caring for our most vital organ. However, cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) have become alarmingly prevalent across Africa. So, what can we do to take better care of our hearts?

NCDs (non-communicable diseases) are expected to surpass infectious diseases in Africa within the current decade. At the forefront of this phenomenon are common risk factors contributing to the growing burden of three major CVDs throughout the continent – hypertension, cardiomyopathies, and atherosclerotic diseases, which have contributed to increased stroke and heart failure rates.

With a population of over 112 million, Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East and North Africa, and accounts for more than 15 percent of the cardiovascular deaths in the region. 2019 statistics show that CVD is the leading cause of premature death in Egypt, with fatalities reaching 126,312 or 24.58 percent of total deaths; making Egypt the 18th highest in CVD deaths worldwide.

To address the startling statistics, we need to look inward. Like the circulatory system that the heart powers, risk factors for CVDs are interconnected. High blood pressure (hypertension) is highly prevalent in Egypt, with 29.2 percent of the adult population suffering from this terminal disease. In 2017, it was estimated that out of the 17.8 million Egyptians suffering from hypertension, and 15.4 million did not have it under control.

While that may sound unrelated to cardiovascular disease, it is important to note that diabetes can lead to severe health complications, including chronic kidney disease, nerve damage, and vision and hearing impairment. Another common – and potentially deadly – complication is CVD. Heart disease – particularly heart failure – is prevalent among people with Type 2 diabetes.

Given the current context of the African burden of heart disease, several factors have brought us here. Rapid urbanisation and changes in lifestyle in Africa have led to an increase in sedentary habits, unhealthy diets, and high-stress levels. It is also known that increased salt consumption, low dietary potassium, obesity, and physical inactivity can play an essential role in the occurrence of both hypertension and diabetes.

Beyond changing diets and lifestyles, many African countries face challenges, including widespread poverty and malnutrition and significant gaps in providing adequate healthcare services to their populations. Access to medical facilities, especially in rural areas, is limited, leading to delayed or insufficient diagnosis and treatment of CVD and other health conditions.

Diagnosis of non-communicable diseases, including CVD – the first and arguably most crucial step, at least at the beginning of any patient’s healthcare journey – remains underfunded compared to communicable diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Hypertension, for example, is undiagnosed in the majority of sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, one study showed that 34.8 percent of those in Egypt with hypertension are even aware of it.

Awareness begins at home

In closing, and to drive greater awareness for patients, it is important to remember that lifestyle choices can influence cardiovascular health. As mentioned earlier, behavioural risk factors for heart disease and stroke can include an unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. Other severe risk factors include tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol.

Warning signs to look out for include raised blood pressure, increased blood glucose, raised blood lipids, and obesity. These “intermediate risk factors” can be assessed at most primary care facilities.

Any heart-related illness is potentially dangerous. But we can take action to control our risk factors by making lifestyle changes and prioritising diagnosis.

As motivational speaker, Josh Shipp said, “The choice does not belong to fate; it belongs to you.” Let’s build a cascade of better CVD management across Africa through awareness, action, assessment, and driving access to diagnosis and care for every patient.

The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected].

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