Heart diseases: What Kenya should do to ease rising burden

Despite the increasing burden of heart disease, Kenya faces major challenges in diagnosing and treating these conditions appropriately.

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Heart disease incidences and associated deaths are on the rise as a result of our unhealthy lifestyles, mostly characterised by poor diet, physical inactivity, alcohol consumption and smoking. The increasing prevalence poses a significant risk to Kenya's public health and demands quick action from policymakers, healthcare professionals and the general population.

But how common is heart disease?

Heart disease encompasses a wide range of conditions affecting the heart’s structure and function, its blood supply and blood vessels that traverse the entire body. It has emerged as a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in Kenya.

According to recent statistics from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey, cardiovascular disease (CVDs) is responsible for up to a quarter of all mortality cases. CVDs involve structural heart disease such as rheumatic heart disease, vascular disease such as heart attacks, hypertensions and its consequences too.

Estimates show that 25 percent of hospital admissions and 13 percent of deaths are due to cardiovascular, an alarming increase in the past decade. This is not confined just to urban centers but also increasing in frequency in the rural communities where access to healthcare services may be limited.

Why this increase now?

The root causes are multiple and intertwine with lifestyle factors, socioeconomic differences, and a lack of preventative measures.

Sedentary lifestyle, which is characterised by physical inactivity and poor dietary habits, are common in both urban and rural living.

Processed foods which contain saturated fats and sodium predispose most people to obesity, hypertension and leads to cardiovascular complications.

Use of tobacco, excessive alcohol consumption and unmitigated stress further increase the risk of developing heart disease. All these lead to a whirlpool that threatens the nation’s health.

Despite the increasing burden of heart disease, Kenya faces major challenges in diagnosing and treating these conditions appropriately.

Limited access to healthcare facilities, especially in the rural areas leads to delayed or missed diagnosis and failure of initiation of treatment. Also, shortage of medical supplies, diagnostic equipment, and skilled health work force strain the capacity of existing healthcare structure to handle the increasing problem.

There exists a glaring disparity in access to specialised cardiac care, with most advanced treatment facilities concentrated in the affluent urban centers. This imbalance leaves rural and urban poor populations at a disadvantage.

Many patients must travel long distance or make major economic sacrifices to access healthcare services or to forego the service all together. The high cost of cardiac procedures and medications further compounds the problem and places a cumbersome financial burden on low-income households and underserved communities.

Considering this increasing crisis, there is an urgent need to prioritise prevention measures aimed to mitigate risk and promote heart healthy lifestyle. Public health campaigns targeting smoking cessation, reduction of alcohol consumption, and advocating for healthy dietary practices can play a big role in raising awareness and fostering behaviour change.

Initiatives to promote physical activity such as fitness programmes and areas in the community, infrastructure development for recreational space such a walking lanes and bicycle lanes would be essential to prevent sedentary lifestyles.

Of high importance, integration of cardiovascular risk assessment and management into primary healthcare services will ensure that people get timely screening, diagnosis and treatment.

This will entail investment into training healthcare professionals at all levels to provide appropriate care. To extend these services to the underserved and rural areas, adoption of mobile health clinics and telemedicine services can facilitate access to care and reduce disparity in such populations.

The burden of heart disease represents an alarming public health challenge that demands urgent action. With the rise of cardiovascular conditions, efforts are required to address the root cause, improve access to quality and timely health care and promote preventative measures at the community level.

This will entail prioritising cardiovascular health and collaborative partnerships within Kenya to pave a healthier future for Kenyan citizens.

Dr Jeilan Mohamed is an Interventional Cardiologist and Dr Anthony Ochola, Cardiology Fellow at Aga Khan University Hospital

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