NAIROBI — The unhealthy habits that come along with economic development, including smoking, drinking and eating fast food, are taking their toll on the health of Kenyans, who are suffering from increasing rates of high blood pressure. Health workers are concerned that if unchecked, this affliction could become a serious problem for the country.
In the checkout line at a supermarket in downtown Nairobi, a conveyor belt moves bags of potato chips, snack foods, processed meats and cheeses, tubs of margarine and bottles of cooking oil.
What many customers here don’t know is that these foods are silent killers - high in salt and fat, ingredients that ratchet up a person’s blood pressure and can lead to an early death from stroke or heart disease.
"They are not aware that they could be sick," said Milicent Manyore, founder of Medical Missions Kenya, a non-profit that provides free health screenings across the country.
"They could have a time bomb. There could be something happening to them, and there’s something they can do about it, [but] they don’t even know that," she said.
Manyore, a nurse practicing in the United States, has raised the alarm in Kenya about the dangers of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, after being diagnosed with the problem herself.
"And so what I did was every time I went home [to Kenya] I started screening people, and I discovered the more I started screening people the more cases of hypertension I discovered. Yeah, that’s how it started," said the nurse.
The World Health Organization says cases of hypertension are most prevalent in low-income countries in Africa, where more than 40 percent of the adult population can be affected.
In Kenya, Manyore has noticed that the cases are not uniform across the nation.
In more urbanized areas, like Central Province, just outside Nairobi, she says up to 75 percent of those screened have high blood pressure. While in the remote, pastoral Samburu region, less than 10 percent of the population suffers from hypertension.
Manyore says lifestyle makes all the difference.
"They walk more distances, they eat organic food, they don’t buy processed food," she said. "So we could see the lifestyle between the two tribes or areas. There’s a big difference; there’s a huge difference."
The treadmills are usually busy at this downtown fitness center, one of the many gyms in town catering to a growing middle class.
Exercise can be hard to come by in Nairobi, where those who can afford to drive take cars and buses to get around, and where the air quality is often unhealthy.
Peter Murunga, a physical trainer, says clients often come in looking for help getting their blood pressure under control, but many are unaware of the help they can get from regular exercise.
"People get sick and they go to the hospital and they are told now to go to the gym and work out. But that’s too late. If somebody is 50 years and he has never seen a gym in his life, so you can imagine how the kids will be," he said.
"Not difficult to treat"
Professor Elijah Ogola, a cardiologist who teaches at the University of Nairobi, says hypertension is not difficult to treat. The drugs are available, but people must make a greater effort to get checked.
"We need to get people to know whether they’re hypertensive or not. And again, a lot of education needs to be done in this area, because hypertension is a symptomless disease," said Ogola.
He encourages doctors and nurses to make blood pressure checks part of standard procedure.
"Also getting the health workers to be conscious that when you encounter an adult, for whatever reason, it just takes an extra five minutes to know their blood pressure," said the professor.
The Kenyan government is conducting a national health survey that will include data on blood pressure to better guide policy going forward.
The battle against hypertension will be difficult, with danger lurking in every grocery store, bar and fried chicken joint.