Businesses, communities on drive against NCDs: WHO

Muscat, August 13 – Businesses and communities in Oman are leading the charge against non-communicable diseases such as heart and lung diseases, cancer, and diabetes, says a World Health Organization (WHO) report.
From smoke-free souqs to low-salt bread and guided by the country’s Nizwa Healthy Lifestyle Project (NHLP), oldest community-based health promotion project founded in 1999, many layers of society — from the national consumer protection authority and municipal authorities to various businesses — have joined forces to reduce risks that causes NCDs and, in turn, improve health.
“All going well, we will set a goal to disseminate these initiatives and put in place more examples all over Oman,” the report quoted Dr Zahir al Anqoudi, Head of NCD Section at Oman’s Ministry of Health and a member of the Oman Anti-Tobacco Society.
Earlier this year, the Nizwa project launched two new innovative health promotion activities — the ‘Tobacco-free souk’ in an open-air traditional market, and the Healthy Restaurants Initiative.
Oman is one of several countries selected by WHO to receive integrated support to fast-track progress on achieving nine global targets to prevent and control NCDs, including reducing premature death from NCDs by 25 per cent by 2025, and the NCD-related targets in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
WHO’s support has been key to Oman’s progress in reducing salt consumption, regulating alcohol sales and marketing and promoting physical activity. The organisation also helped lay the foundation for five strategic priorities for NCD prevention and control Oman is working towards tobacco control, healthy diet, physical activity, healthy territories and
integration of NCDs into primary healthcare.
Uniting people and leaders from different sectors behind a common goal to intensify action to improve the health of Omanis has also been a part of WHO’s work.
Such collaboration has resulted in significant reduction in salt consumption, for example. Reducing salt content in food was a measure supported by many local food producers, particularly Oman’s main bakeries, who supply 90 per cent of all bread products. As a result, the Omani government is now committed to additional legislation to regulate fats and sugars.
In Oman, popular community centres are often places of worship, restaurants, or markets. Recognising this, Oman’s Ministry of Health is focusing on such areas to tackle two big NCD risk factors: diet and tobacco.
In Nizwa, establishing a tobacco-free souq was the next big step in tobacco control following its indoor smoking ban issued in 2010. A survey conducted by local volunteers in 2016 found near unanimous support for the smoking ban by community members, business owners, local visitors and international tourists alike.
The Healthy Restaurants Initiative is a first for Oman and one of the few of its kind in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. Three restaurants have volunteered to pilot locally developed guidelines for healthy food options on their menus that are low in salt, fat and sugar. Classes on healthy food preparations are also on offer for staff.
“We will make sure the implementation of the initiatives will happen gradually through proper awareness raising and training,” the report quoted Yarub al Yahyaee, Director of the Municipality of Nizwa.
Targeting risk factors like diet and tobacco that are closely related to cancers, heart disease and stroke, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases is vital in Oman.
More than 50 per cent of Omani men and women are overweight or obese, more than 40 per cent have hypertension, and 12 per cent have been diagnosed with diabetes. One in five Omanis die before their 70th birthday, most from largely preventable cardiovascular diseases.
Like many other countries in WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean Region, the estimated average intake of salt consumption for people in Oman is close to 10 gm per person per day. This is double WHO recommendations.
This is why the United Nations Interagency Taskforce on NCDS (UNIATF) and the WHO GCM/NCD Integrated Country Support team work, is in strong collaboration with Oman to ensure factors like salt reduction can be implemented from end-to-end,
starting with monitoring and surveillance of population-wide salt consumption.
Since 2015, Oman has been successful in achieving a 10-per cent reduction of salt content in bread items within main bakeries. In 2016, this initiative established a more ambitious objective of 20 per cent salt reduction in breads and broadened its focus to cheese as well.
The Ministry of Health has also established a national monitoring team to control the progress in salt and fat reduction in Omani food products.
It is hoped this will help establish a baseline measure of salt consumption in the population, usually measured from a 24-hour urine sample, so that progress can be tracked and more easily linked to changes in health outcomes.
To ensure these measures reach Oman’s youth, the government has incorporated health education in all school curriculums. This recognises that youth can act as powerful agents of change but also benefit greatly from health promotion messages.
A further proposal for reducing saturated fat, especially palm oil, in Omani foods is being considered by the government.
Continued success in Oman in the fight against NCDs will depend on strong leadership and a cross-sectoral approach including all levels of society, authorities state. It will also require patience and support to ensure scale-up from pilot projects can happen at the right pace.