Obesity, dental decay rising among schoolchildren

Nutrition-related health problems, such as obesity and dental decay, are becoming increasingly obvious among Samoa’s schoolchildren, new analysis from the Ministry of Health has found. 

The Ministry of Health’s annual report for the Financial Year 2018-2019 reveals the growing extent of medical problems such as obesity among young Samoan teenagers. 

"Nutrition-related health problems such as obesity and dental decay are becoming increasingly obvious amongst school children in Samoa," the report reads.

“For children, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in [Samoan] 13-15 years old was estimated to be 51 per cent and 19.2 per cent respectively in 2011 and has increased to 58 per cent and 23.3 per cent in 2017.

“[These children] are at increased risk of developing health problems according to the most recent Global School Health Survey in 2018.”

The health Ministry says the issues are a result of unhealthy diets. 

“The nutrition-related health concerns are linked to poor eating habits children who regularly consume foods which are high in fat, sugar, salt and low in fibre such as ice pops, pancakes, soft drinks, doughnuts, noodles, chips, including taro and banana chips sweets and lollies,” the report found. 

Obesity-related diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes and hypertension are currently highly prevalent amongst Samoa’s adult population at 24.8 per cent and 28.9 respectively. 

But the report noted that the Ministry’s Nutrition Unit had conducted biannual visits to schools to establish whether they were in compliance with nutritional guidelines.  While only 46 per cent of schools were found to be in compliance in the last half of 2018 that number had increased to 57 per cent for the first half of 2019. 

Last year the United Nations Children’s Fund (U.N.I.C.E.F.) published an international report on children, food and nutrition that found Samoa’s children were more overweight than the regional average. 

More children than not are eating poorly, the U.N.I.C.E.F. report concluded, and that carries implication not only for their health but their learning abilities. 

Globally, one-in-three children under five are growing poorly because they are visibly malnourished. 

But one-in-two children are suffering from hidden dietary issues, the report found: namely deficiencies in vitamins and nutrients.

In Samoa, five per cent of pre-schoolers and 53 per cent of school aged children are overweight. 

That is just one percentage point less than the regional average for preschoolers but nearly twice that for school-aged children.

Last month the Vice-Chancellor of the Oceania University of Medicine, Manufalealili Dr. Viali Lameko, said more sport in Samoa’s villages and a ban on advertising sugary food and drinks would help curb the nation’s obesity epidemic. 

With people in power noticeably obese, work needs to be done to discourage any notion that obesity should be positively linked to influence and success, Manufalealili argued.

“My general observation, as a clinician living in Samoa is that most of the politicians and Government officials in Samoa are either overweight or obese,” he said.

“Unfortunately, most of the church ministers and their wives are also generally obese. 

“The fact that so many of these religious and political elites are obese, and in positions of power and influence, it may appear to many Samoans that power and influence are positively correlated with obesity. 

“But, at the same time, Samoans are not immune to globalised cultural trends on what constitutes bodily beauty, propagated by social media.”

Manufalealili lamented the prevalence of soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages being advertised prominently on billboards and a “barrage” of television retailers advertising imported and processed food.  

“Perhaps using the same ideas to ban the food industries from conducting widespread advertisement of sugar-sweetened beverages and from sponsoring sports activities of all ages,” he said. 

 “Another more controversial measure is to increase the taxes on fatty, salty, and sugar-sweetened food to deter consumers from buying these items.”

The U.N.I.C.E.F.’s report found childhood obesity can lead to a number of medical conditions, including gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal and orthopaedic complication and early-onset Type 2 Diabetes or behavioural and emotional problems.

Childhood obesity also strongly correlates with obesity in later life which can have serious consequences for individuals’ health and the broader economy.  

Obesity can also have serious consequences for pregnant women, including gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, obstetric complications and overweight and chronic disease for the child in later life. 

 “Overweight, long thought of as a condition of the wealthy, is now increasingly a condition of the poor, reflecting the greater availability of ‘cheap calories’ from fatty and sugary foods in almost every country in the world,” the report found.

A recent analysis in a ‘Global Burden of Disease’ study found that diets lacking nutrition were now the leading cause of death worldwide.

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