Three Caribbean countries are to take part in a three-year project titled Congregation Taking Action Against NCDs (CONTACT), to significantly reduce lifestyle illnesses.
Being implemented under the Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR) in Jamaica, Guyana and Dominica, the project will see partnerships being developed with places of worship (PoWs), for the dissemination of crucial health messages to tackle diabetes, high blood pressure and other related diseases.
The Caribbean has the worst epidemic of NCDs in the Americas, which cause more than 60 per cent of deaths in the region. In Jamaica, the diseases are responsible for most premature deaths, with high blood pressure affecting 25 per cent of the population.
CONTACT has developed a “new approach” to train church members as Health Advocates (HAs) for their congregations and communities, where they will promote physical activity, healthy food choices and patient care, with the aim of increasing the reach of health services, thereby reducing deaths.
“NCDs negatively affect national development, contributing to the rise in healthcare cost and low productivity,” stated Minister of Health, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton, at the launch of the project, held recently at the University of the West Indies Regional Headquarters, in St. Andrew.
The Minister said that the church has credibility, which can assist health campaigns, and the initiative is part of efforts that “we embrace, because we believe it is absolutely critical as part of the growth agenda to promote healthier lifestyles”.
Lead Investigator of the Jamaica segment of CONTACT, Professor of Epidemiology at the CAIHR, Rainford Wilks, says places of worship are legitimate community assets to which people turn for help, and leveraging their influence in the campaign against NCDs can be a major boost.
The Professor adds that the congregations, as “trusted community assets”, will be providing information, advice and health monitoring for “early intervention”, to increase health literacy, enabling individuals to have the capacity to improve their health, so that there can be a reduction in the need for treatment of NCDs and complications.
Communities selected for the project are Norman Gardens and Olympic Gardens in Kingston and St. Andrew; Yallahs, St. Thomas; and Riversdale, St. Catherine.
Fifteen PoWs will begin collaboration for the CONTACT this month, working closely with nearby health centres.
Advisor for Health Systems and Services at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)/World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Hedwig Goede, describes the project as the beginning of the “start of an outstanding collaborative effort in the fight against NCDs”.
“This is about behaviour change for these lifestyle diseases. This initiative looks at enhancing the existing health services, by utilising the strength and assets of communities to promote health, and to reach the poorest in a cost-effective way,” she tells JIS News.
The PAHO/WHO Advisor adds that the project is “very unique” and a great resource to use for the development of health, as there is a firm relationship between religion, and mental and physical health.
Dr. Goede says the magnitude of rampant NCDs in the region indicates that “none of us can do it alone. Together we can generate synergies to tackle this complex epidemic”.
According to a WHO 2010 survey, the five major risk factors contributing to the prevalence of NCDs in Jamaica are obesity, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
Under the supervision of experienced nurses, the HAs will facilitate self-management for persons who have the diseases, such as foot care for diabetics, and ways to detect early signs of NCDs.
Findings from the CONTACT will provide a model for community-based intervention to meet the strategic targets in the University of the West Indies, Mona, Epidemiology Research Unit’s NCD Action Plans.
The project has received the endorsement of both the Jamaica Umbrella Group of Churches (JUGC), and the Jamaica Council of Churches (JCC).
Describing the initiative as “bold”, Communications Officer at the JCC, Marsha Nathalee Martin, says the findings will make “significant contribution to our joint response in treating persons who have developed the illnesses as well as preventing new cases”.
The project is supported by researchers from the King’s College, London; the UWI; University of Guyana; New York University School of Medicine; and Ross University, Dominica.
Funding is provided by the United Kingdom (UK)-based Department for International Development (DFID), the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Welcome Trust (WT).