The great leader Mahatma Gandhi once said, “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” These wise words signify the great value we should attach to health and more importantly, need to teach children that good health is the best wealth.
The World Health Organisation defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely absence of disease and infirmity.” This implies that even if one is not sick, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy. We tend to focus on physical health and ignore the mental and social aspects. Yet, mental and social health challenges are real as seen in the rising cases of depression, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence and sexual abuse.
In addition, there is a surge in the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes, stroke and hypertension partly attributable to changing lifestyles. Mental illness is also classified as a non-communicable disease.
Health in the broadest sense of the word is therefore everyone’s responsibility. Children and youth should be taught the importance of taking charge of their health. Growing into healthy adults depends on the choices they make today. This strongly applies to NCD prevention and control. Medical experts say two-thirds of premature deaths in adults are associated with childhood conditions and behaviours.
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Therefore, children, adolescents and youth need to be involved in managing their health and wellness. They should know negative, unhealthy lifestyles contribute to ill health in adulthood. Wellness habits like regular exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep and abstinence from smoking and excessive alcohol consumption should be inculcated at an early age.
In a note titled ‘Youth and NCDs’ the WHO cautions that failure to change current behaviours of young people will add to the current NCD burden, with severe consequences for future populations and their health systems. And that youth everywhere have a vested interest in NCD prevention. Available data show that in 2017 more than 2.1 billion children were affected by non-communicable diseases. The key factors driving NCDs among children include obesity, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and even alcohol and tobacco use. It is estimated that 24 million children aged between 13 to 15 years smoke. 155 million children in the 15-19 age bracket, consume alcohol. Obesity afflicts 42 million children globally and is blamed for a rise in type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure among youth. Overall, non-communicable diseases were responsible for the deaths of over one million children in 2017.
These figures show need for parents and teachers to prioritise health and wellness as part of the education and development of the child. Moreover, children are a vulnerable group who may not be in a position to make certain informed choices regarding their health and wellness.
Of importance is preventing early onset of NCDs among young people. Hence the need to actively promote a healthy lifestyle as a preventive measure against diseases that will impair not only health but also quality of life and ability to work.
Fortunately, our youth are empowered and well-informed and have access to technology. If guided and mentored properly on health issues, they can be powerful agents of change and influential stakeholders in NCD prevention and control.
Laws prohibiting underage consumption of tobacco and alcohol and advertising of such products to children should be strictly enforced. Parents should be on the guard against harmful influences that children and youth may be exposed to.
Also, school curricula should integrate health and wellness both in the classroom and by encouraging physical activity within the school environment. All said, involving children in improving health outcomes in life is an important part of safeguarding their rights.
-The writer is Managing Director, AAR Insurance Kenya.