The Cook Islands is facing another health crisis on top of the Covid-19 pandemic, with nearly half of its adult population affected by some form of Non-Communicable Disease (NCD).
It all starts with an extra 10 minutes of exercise a day. That’s the message from the workers for Te Marae Ora (TMO) Ministry of Health, who were administering free health checks on Wednesday.
manager Apii Tumutoa, who assumed his role about two weeks ago, says curbing
the rate of NCDs would be the focus for TMO over the next five years.
“We want people to
make the change now, it only takes 10 minutes of extra activity each day to
combat some of the health issues that lead to NCDs,” says Tumutoa.
discovered is that NCDs affect all government departments. Everyone wants to
get involved in the fight. It needs to start with people getting health
checked, the next stage is pointing people in the right direction. We are
facing a big challenge.”
Te Marae Ora will
be focusing on schools over the next few months.
Tumutoa says: “It
is important to start with the schools. We need to get our new generation lined
up to a better and healthier future. We need our young leaders to start setting
the example for everyone else.”
“We need to come
into the classes with the health perspective. We want our children to
understand what it is to eat well. The majority of our school kids don’t know
what they can actually eat that’s not from the supermarket. Many of them
wouldn’t eat enough fruit and vegetables.”
during 2019 and 2020, TMO conducted a NCD screening survey, and tentative
results identified a total of 2805 females (which is 51 per cent) from the age
groups of 15 – 64 years, were diagnosed with stroke, heart disease, cancer and diabetes,
while a total of 2695 males (which is 49 per cent) from the same age groups
were also diagnosed with NCDs.
In addition, Aitutaki also conducted a health screening in 2021 in which 89 per cent of people screened were overweight and 65 per cent of those who were overweight were obese.
The figures don’t surprise health promotion officer Tania John, who suspects the number has increased further during the Covid-19 pandemic.
spending a lot more time at home not exercising, particularly if they’re in
isolation or quarantine,” John says.
“People are eating
worse. More and more people are just going to fast food for convenience.”
John admits it is
a challenge to change people’s behaviour.
“We can’t change
people overnight, but we can make them aware. That’s where the health checks become
so important,” she says.
“The more people
we can make aware of their health, the better.”
John says much of
her work involves preparing strategies to assist with those who are affected by
NCDs. Often patients are simply unaware until they get checked.
“You do get some
people who get shocked into making a change,” John says.
“It starts with
slight things, and then they can move onto other changes in their life.”
Director of Public Health Doctor Tereapii Uka says it was important to reach out
to as many in the community as possible.
“It’s tough at the
moment. A lot of the people we need to reach are currently in isolation or
quarantine,” Uka says.
“But we also need
to get all the stakeholders onboard.”
Uka says lifestyle
choices greatly affect people’s susceptibility to NCDs.
“A lot of people
are drinking too much, or consuming too much sugar or have a high salt intake,”
“Some people simply
haven’t made the right decisions.”
The high rate of
NCDs has led to quite a large number of Cook Islands patients being referred to
New Zealand simply because TMO doesn’t have the resources.
putting pressure on our services, there are people with heart conditions,
kidney conditions, it’s almost an epidemic,” Uka says.
Uka agrees the
best idea is to start with the children when it comes to offering advice.
“We need to get
the message out to our teachers,” Uka says.
“We need to focus
on our children, there needs to be a lot of emphasis on being active and eating
well. We need to accept that this is a crisis.”
health advocate George George says for many Cook Islands men, the problems
start when they stop playing sport.
“They get out of the
habit of being active, and lose themselves. Some turn into couch potatoes,”
“For many, there’s
a downward trend when they’re not practicing for the weekend game.”
habits also have a major impact on the men’s health crisis.
“People are eating
themselves to death or to the point where they’re in a wheelchair. It’s pretty
serious,” George says.
“We Cook Islanders
have got a thing about eating too much.”
George says the
best way to keep on top of your health is to regularly get checkups.
“It’s amazing. A
lot of people simply don’t know they have health issues until they visit a
doctor,” he says.
“You can’t really judge
a book by its cover. But the sooner things are detected, the better. The good
news is that many of these illnesses are curable, as long as they’re detected
George says people
should try to become active again in simple ways.
“You don’t have to
run a mile every day, you just need to get outside and go for a walk for 10 or
20 minutes, or do outside chores or something to keep you active,” he says.
George says it was
particularly important for people to keep healthy in the Cook Islands as it was
such a close-knit community.
everyone here, so we have a duty to keep healthy,” he says.