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Year of Serious Health Challenges, Says PAHO

Important Successes Recorded as Well.

WASHINGTON,–From the Zika epidemic and the birth of thousands of babies with congenital malformations, through the declaration of measles as eliminated from the Americas, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says 2016 is a year of “serious challenges and important successes” for health in the Caribbean and other places in the Americas.

The Washington-based health organization said that it worked with the countries of the region to address emergencies and disasters, including Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, while continuing to support country efforts to reduce, control and even eliminate myriad diseases.

PAHO said it also published a number of new reports and issued guidance on key health issues, including its new Nutrient Profile Model, which establishes criteria for defining excess levels of sugar, salt and fats in processed foods and beverages, “all to improve the health of people in the region”.

The Epidemiological Reports include background on first autochthonous vector-borne cases, trend, circulation of other arboviruses, Zika virus disease in pregnant women, Zika complications, national Zika surveillance guidelines, laboratory capacity, and information sharing.

In 2016, PAHO declared the following countries with Zika virus: Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Aruba, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolvia, Bonaire, Sint Eustace, Saba, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Curacao, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and El Salvador.

The others are French Guiana, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Martinique, Mexico, Montserrat, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Martin, St. Kitts-Nevis, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Turks and Caicos Islands, United States and Venezuela.

In February, PAHO defined new criteria for what is “too much” sugar, salt and fat in processed food and drinks in presenting a new Nutrient Profile Model.

“The model is intended to help Caribbean governments develop more effective policies to encourage healthy eating,” said PAHO, stating that the overall objective is to improve unhealthy dietary patterns in the region “that are contributing to the growing epidemic of chronic diseases, ”such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

The PAHO Nutrient Profile Model provides away for governments to identify unhealthy products and use public policies to discourage their consumption while making it easier for consumers to focus on traditional diets based on fresh or minimally processed foods,” said PAHO assistant Director Francisco Becerra.

“We have data showing that the consumption of nutrient-poor, calorie-rich ultra-processed foods in countries of the Americas is directly related to growing rates of overweight and obesity,” said ChessaLutter, PAHO Senior Advisor on Food and Nutrition.

The model defines processed foods as food products that are industrially-manufactured using salt, sugar or other ingredients to preserve them or make them more palatable.

Ultra-processed foods are defined as industrially-formulated food products that contain substances extracted from foods, such as casein, milk whey and protein isolates, or substances synthesized from food constituents, such as hydrogenated oils, modified starches and flavours.

Drawing on the best scientific evidence available, the model classifies processed and ultra-processed foods and beverages as having “excessive” amounts of sugar, salt and fat,” PAHO said.

The model also specifies that products whose ingredients include artificial or natural non-caloric or caloric sweeteners should be defined as “containing other sweeteners.”

PAHO said the new criteria are meant to be applied to all processed and ultra-processed foods, ranging from pickled vegetables and lunch meats to chips, ice cream, flavoured yogurts, cereals and cereal bars.

The criteria do not apply to unpro­cessed or minimally processed foods, such as fresh or frozen vegetables, legu­mes, grains, fruits, nuts, roots and tubers, meat, fish, milk, and eggs, or to freshly prepared dishes made with those foods, PAHO said.

Other policies supported by the new criteria include front-of-package labels that alert consumers to products or beverages that contain excessive sugar, salt or fat; taxation of unhealthy products, such as sugar-sweetened soda; and changes in agricultural subsidies and social programmes that encourage production and consumption of fresh, whole foods.

In April, PAHO said one in 12 inhabitants -some 62 million people -live with diabetes in the Americas, including the Caribbean.

It said the number has tripled since 1980, declaring that diabetes is currently the fourth-leading cause of death in the hemisphere, following heart attacks, strokes and dementias.

If current trends continue, PAHO said experts warned that nearly 110 million people in the region will have diabetes by 2040.

The first Global Report on Diabetes from the World Health Organization (WHO) was launched in early April in Geneva and Mexico City, as part of the 2016 World Health Day campaign, which was dedicated to diabetes.

The WHO report highlights the urgency of stepping up efforts to prevent and control diabetes, particularly through public policies that support healthy lifestyles and by ensuring that health systems are able to promptly diagnose, treat and care for people with diabetes.

“The best way to prevent diabetes is for people to follow a healthy diet, avoiding ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages that are high in calories and low in nutrients, and to engage in regular physical activity to help maintain a healthy body weight,” said PAHO’s Dominican-born director Dr. Carissa F. Etienne.

Preventing diabetes, however, “is not just an individual responsibility,” Etienne noted. Rather, she urged governments to adopt effective public policies and measures that help “make the healthy choice the easiest choice to make.”

Diabetes is a progressive chronic disease characterized by high levels of blood glucose, according to PAHO, stating that it is a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, lower limb amputation and other long-term health problems “that have a significant impact on quality of life and increase the risk of premature death.”

In addition, PAHO said medical care for diabetes and its complications take a high financial toll on families and health systems.

In 2014, PAHO said diabetes-related health spending in the countries of the Americas amounted to some US$382 billion.

The vast majority of people with diabetes suffer from type 2, which is closely linked to overweight and obesity, as well as sedentary lifestyles, PAHO said.

In the Americas, PAHO said more than 60percent of the population is overweight or obese, largely as a result of life style changes related to development and globalization.

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