The burden of hypertension has now shifted from developed nations to low and middle- income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
A new study published in November’s issue of The Lancet journal revealed that over the past 40 years, the number of adults living with the disease rose globally from 594 million in 1975 to over 1.1 billion in 2015. Most of these cases were in low and middle-income countries.
“Taken globally, high blood pressure is no longer a problem of the Western world or wealthy countries. It is a problem of the world’s poorest countries and people,” said lead author of the study, professor Majid Ezzati, from Imperial College in London.
The findings of this study are a reflection of the growing burden of non-communicable diseases, especially hypertension, which has been worrying health experts in East Africa.
Elijah Ogolla, a cardiologist at Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi says that the rise in hypertension cases across the region is mainly as a result of unhealthy diets, sedentary lifestyles and inadequate physical activity.
Even as the numbers increase, he says that most East Africans are still unaware of their status and often end up being diagnosed with the disease when it is at an advanced stage, since it does not exhibit symptoms.
By the time someone starts feeling unwell, the disease may have already damaged body organs including the heart and kidneys. It can also cause blindness and brain damage.
“That’s why we advise people to get tested so they can catch the disease early and start treatment promptly,” said Dr Ogolla.
Leading a healthy lifestyle and taking hypertension treatment drugs lowers high blood pressure to acceptable levels and protect patients from organ damage.
However, the drugs, which are taken for life, are still inaccessible to most people because they are quite costly.
“Countries need to identify those with high blood pressure and ensure that systems are in place to start and retain them on treatment,” said Dr Ogolla.
The Healthy Heart Africa (HHA) initiative by Astrazeneca, a leading global producer of hypertension treatment drugs is trying to bridge that gap through an innovative business model that allows it to subsidise prices for the poor. Wealthier nations pay more for the same drugs, meaning Astrazeneca is still able to make profits.
In Kenya, where this initiative was launched in 2014, people from low-income households buy the hypertension drugs from the company at $3, against a market price of $30. The programme began in Ethiopia early this year and is set to extend to other African countries following its success in Kenya.
The World Health Organisation estimates that about 30 per cent of adults in Africa have elevated blood pressure levels. It notes that healthy diets, low salt intake reduction of fat intake and eating five servings of fruit and vegetables daily can reduce the risk of hypertension. Stopping cigarette smoking and limiting alcohol intake to one standard drink a day can also forestall high blood pressure.
Effective stress management techniques and regular physical activity for at least 150 minutes weekly is also recommended to prevent hypertension.