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On the scourge of obesity and chronic diseases in Bermuda

Friday, October 20, 2017
The Hon. Kim Wilson

Ministerial Statement by the Minister of Health the Hon. Kim Wilson JP, MP

Mr Speaker and Honourable Members,

I rise today to address this Honourable House about a matter of national importance. A matter significant to our economic prosperity and our physical survival: the prevalence of obesity and non-communicable diseases.

Mr Speaker, Bermuda today is suffering from epidemic-levels of obesity and chronic non-communicable diseases like diabetes and kidney disease. I know we don’t like to hear it, but three in four of Bermuda’s residents are overweight or obese. This is among the highest in the world, and it’s not okay.

I say this to my Honourable colleagues and the public: wherever you are right now, look around you, look at yourself, and count how many people are overweight or obese within your view? Be truly honest and include those you would may normally think of as “big boned” or “chunky”.

Look in the mirror. Are you a woman with a waist measuring more than 35 inches or a man with a waist larger than 40 inches? If the answer is ‘yes’, then include yourself in the statistic.

We are too large, Mr Speaker. It pains me to say it, but we must wake up to this sad truth because if we don’t, we won’t get out of the spiral of disease and exorbitant health spending that we are currently on. It has to stop, and it starts with the person looking back at you in the mirror. But, make no mistake, Mr Speaker, obesity is not about how we look.

Obesity, and the lifestyle choices that cause it, also lead to the early onset of preventable diseases like diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease. These conditions bear a terrible burden on those afflicted, on their families, and they are expensive to treat.

Estimates by the Bermuda Health Council indicate that, based in health insurance claims alone, obesity and diabetes will add over $26 million to our Island’s health costs over the next ten years. This is just the direct cost of medical care and does not include indirect costs, like the impact on other conditions, out of pocket payments, subsidies, wages and work hours lost.  Those indirect costs are part of the larger health economic impact. Bermuda just can’t afford this.

Mr Speaker, The Ministry of Health is committed to tackling the scourge of obesity and chronic, non-communicable diseases on our population. Our future prosperity depends on this because sick people can’t work or study, and they become an economic burden rather than productive members of society.

For this reason, the Throne Speech 2017 highlighted our commitment to health and wellness. I would like to highlight some of the initiatives we are engaged it to tackle this issue, in partnership with broader community organizations.

Mr Speaker, I want to start with ‘Taking it to the Streets’. This summer the Department of Health took its Community Health Nursing Team to the streets and screened more than 350 people and referred 126 for additional medical assessment. Persons were referred because the screenings found significantly elevated blood pressure and blood sugar readings at these free health checks.

Mr Speaker, this means one in three persons screened were at risk and in need of medical attention. How many other people are walking among us today in a similar state?

Chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are called “silent killers” because many sufferers do not feel sick – they have no symptoms. Screening is an important tool for testing and early detection before symptoms develop and before debilitating disease takes hold. Lives may have been saved because of this.

Mr Speaker,  The next initiative I want to highlight is the recent Celebrating Wellness event.

I know my Honourable Colleagues agree with Fredrick Douglas’ statement that: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. The Department of Health takes this dictum very seriously.

The seventh annual Celebrating Wellness event was held last month with the theme “Ensuring a Brighter Future for our Youth”. The event provided a supportive forum and targeted information with demonstrations of sport, health and fitness related activities, a selection of healthy food options and free health screenings. Initiatives like this, Mr Speaker, help us to get the word out and to make health the easier choice.

Mr Speaker, We know that physical activity is good for us at any age. To this end, the Health Promotion Office held the ‘50 Million Step Challenge’. This fun and highly successful challenge was an inter-parish walking competition held from August to September that had participants hitting the railway trail and sidewalks every day with their pedometers.

Adults are advised to remain active for approximately 30 minutes a day and as a guideline walking 10,000 steps daily will assure adequate physical activity.

Bermuda’s walkers showed that what they are made of, and more than doubled the original goal to 100 million steps taken!  The overall parish team winner was Team St. Georges Steppers. To reward their winning efforts, outdoor fitness equipment will be installed in a designated park in St George’s parish, which will include wheelchair accessible equipment.

But, Mr Speaker, while we all know that an ‘ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’, the truth is that once you’re ill we have to invest that ‘pound’ to manage your disease and get you back on the right track.

For this purpose, the Health Insurance Department has the ‘Enhanced Care Pilot’. This 18-month pilot programme targets under-insured and uninsured persons with obesity or overweight, hypertension, diabetes, asthma/COPD, and coronary vascular disease. It aims to improve chronic disease management to reduce disease complications, unnecessary hospitalisation and emergency room visits. Currently over 150 participants have enrolled, and initial feedback is very encouraging.

Lastly, Mr Speaker, I want to highlight an important development that should help the country manage chronic diseases better: the establishment of a ‘National Register of Chronic Diseases’. Work to develop a Register for selected chronic diseases is underway.  This will require the cooperation of private and public health sectors and its success is vitally important.  Accurate national health statistics are a basic requirement to address the chronic disease problem in Bermuda.  We must be able to know the population's health status and accurately track our progress following interventions.

Mr Speaker, This is just an overview of activities underway today. Some were started under the previous administration, and I’m entirely committed to continuing this good work because it benefits Bermuda as a whole.

In addition, we are hard at work to develop proposals for Bermuda’s Sugar Tax, which we intend to begin consultation on in the coming months. And I am personally committed to re-introducing the Vending Machine Policy in Government Buildings to ensure healthier options are available on Government properties. We must not continue to promote the very choices that make us sick and cost us so dearly.

My Ministry looks forward to continuing this work, and we hope this Honourable House will join us in these efforts to halt the rise in obesity in Bermuda.

Thank you Mr Speaker.