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World Health Day Raises Awareness of Deadliest Condition

  • Henry Ridgwell

It is one of the world’s biggest killers, yet doctors say few people know much about it. This year the theme of World Health Day - on April 7 - is high blood pressure. It’s a huge problem in parts of Africa and Asia. The first challenge is diagnosing the condition.

On an evening at Dakar beach in Senegal, the sands are packed with people exercising.

A recent World Health Organization report indicated that one out of eight Senegalese women aged over 20 are obese - and suffer from related diseases like high blood pressure.

Mamaty Ndiaye says she is trying to persuade her family to start getting more active.

She says they have diabetes and high blood pressure. She says she advises them to walk and to exercise a little more.

The World Health Organization has produced a hard-hitting video as part of its campaign to raise awareness of the dangers. It says more than one in three adults worldwide has high blood pressure. In some low-income African countries prevalence is as high as 40 percent.

Professor Majid Ezzati is Chair in Global Environmental Health at Imperial College London.

“Salt is perhaps the most important dietary determinant of high blood pressure," said Ezzati. "And that’s actually something that is culturally and geographically driven. And many high income countries have successfully removed salt from prepared and packaged food.”

Ezzati says high blood pressure puts a huge burden on people and societies.

“It is the leading risk factor for mortality and for disease burden worldwide," he said. "It is associated obviously with cardiovascular diseases, large effects on strokes which are very common throughout Asia, on heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases.”

In remote areas, doctors say one of the biggest problems is accessing healthcare. So a team of medics has developed a solar-powered blood pressure monitor, hoping to transform diagnosis and treatment. Andrew Shennan, Professor of Obstetrics at Kings College London is among the designers.

“We went into rural areas in Tanzania, in Zambia, in Zimbabwe, and we gave it to clinics that previously hadn’t even had blood pressure measurement," said Shennan. "We wanted to know whether the people would use it and whether it would result in people accessing the more sophisticated care in the central hospitals. And actually it did exactly that.”

The monitors were originally developed to diagnose high blood pressure in pregnant women. But Shennan says it could be adapted for any population.

“Although this is a very cheap device which we plan to sell for under 20 euros [$26], it is as accurate as the 10,000 pounds [$15,000] machines that I use on the intensive care unit," he said.

Togo is another African country battling the growing problem of high blood pressure.

"Arterial high blood pressure, as many like to say, is a silent killer," said Dr. Edem Goeh-Akue, a cardiologist at Lomé University Hospital in Togo.. "It's a disease that we don't talk about it very often, but it's a disease which kills. You can say it kills more people than AIDS but we don't talk about it a lot."

The World Health Organization hopes to get more people talking about one of the world’s biggest killers.