75 PERCENT OF DEATHS IN PACIFIC TRACED TO

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OBESITY
Pacific isles seek ban on bad foods

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, April 20, 2011) - Fiji-based World Health Organization nutritionist Temo Waqanivalu says weight-related diseases are responsible for three-quarters of deaths in the Pacific region.

The incidents continue to increase despite the fact that weight-related issues and diabetes have been discussed for years.

To tackle the issue, Pacific Island countries have attempted to ban imports of some foods.

But they are then faced with trade issues concerning free trade in the Pacific.

Many nations have become caught between what they would like to do to ensure a healthier population and the economy, in terms of trade.

Dr. Waqanivalu says he is glad global leaders are recognizing the problem but is concerned there is not enough political will to change the situation.

"So the UN high-level meeting and the big focus on it this year, we believe that it should push that forward," he said.

"For non-communicable diseases you can see that the health system, in a whole lot of ways in the Pacific, are still a lot of focus on communicable diseases and there hasn't been much attention in terms of the system trying to respond to the epidemic so to speak, although there's been quite a lot of talk on it.

Political will to bring down rates of obesity does exist.

The late former King of Tonga, His Royal Highness, spearheaded country-wide health campaigns and diet competitions.

The King also went on these diets and a large number of people lost weight.

But currently, 90 per cent of the Tongan population are overweight and more than 60 per cent are obese.

Dr. Waqanivalu says general awareness of these health issues is increasing but there has been no health policies to support it.

"If you look at budget in terms of what they allocate for non-communicable diseases you'll be surprised, in most of the island countries, that even within the non-communicable diseases allocations by government, you seem to see more alignment of resources towards the curative side of things and clinical rather than on healthy lifestyle promotion," he said.

"What we have been trying to do is to shift the focus from clinical and curative to more of the primary and secondary prevention, because that's where the best bias could be in the context of low resource.

"So yes, if you look at political will in terms of advocacy at the high level in getting the leaders to be aware of it, every biannual meeting of the ministers of health is cast, but how it translates from that to how they operate in the country, in terms of addressing non-communicable diseases, that's where I think the real challenge is."

Dr. Waqanivalu says things are improving, for example in Vanuatu where civil servants are encouraged to participate in the Walk For Life program which aims to increase employees wellbeing.

But he says improvements must be made to the health system.

"If you get down to the primary care level at the nursing stations and health centers and you ask them questions on obesity and overweight and body mass index, you will see that they would probably know everything to do with immunization but have very little orientation towards what is the most problematic disease in the country," he said.

Eating canned foods and drinking soft drinks is almost a status symbol in the region, where 50 per cent of people have diabetes.

Dr. Waqanivalu says there is no lack of attempt by Pacific island countries to apply restrictions to imported foods.

"Then they get they're faced with trade issues on free trade in the Pacific.

"That's why that Pacific Food Summit was held, that's why the food dialogue was done with the food industries, particularly those that supply the Pacific; Australia, New Zealand and Asian countries, on how we can work together to ensure there's quality food that comes to the Pacific.

"This is where we need all sectors to cooperate, hence the Pacific Food Summit that was done last year to bring every player onto the table, especially agriculture, trade and also the food industry to see how best we can supply quality food, but also encouraging the countries that they need to develop and strengthen their food control systems, so they determine what is actually brought in to the country."

Health authorities in Tonga are calling for new laws which will allow the country to ban imports of poor quality food.

The Tongan Health Department says more than 90 percent of the population is classed as overweight and more than 60 percent is obese.

And this is contributing to a surge in coronary heart disease and diabetes.

A high level health summit will be held in Tonga next week to discuss the causes of what's regarded as an obesity epidemic.

Tonga's Chief medical Officer Malakai Ake says high on the agenda will be a discussion about the banning of certain imported items.

"We are pushing for the development of a national Food Act here in Tonga," he said.

"With the Food Act we will actually demand the Food Institution to give out a Food Standard and that will give us power to send back to the port of origin, any food that is not up to the standard we want, at the port of entry.

"Any food can come in now because we don't have a Food Act or Food Standard."

Mr. Ake says that without food standards Tonga will remain a dumping ground for sub-standard food.

He says the aim of the upcoming summit is to push the government into taking action.

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