Tackling NCDs: Tanzania faces tough journey

Monday June 18 2018

The minister for Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, Ms Ummy Mwalimu.

Dar es Salaam. Eight years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that by 2030, up to 52 million lives would be lost globally due to lifestyle diseases.

Nonetheless, figures show that the number of people falling victim to lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart complications is still on the rise.

Despite the warning nearly a decade ago, Tanzania stepped up its fight against the diseases about two years ago, success of which would depend on people’s readiness to actively participate in the crusade and how much they are informed about prevention.

Earlier, in its first ever Global Status Report on Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs), the WHO said in 2010 that the magnitude of these diseases was rising, especially in low and middle-income countries.

“Here in Tanzania, we have adopted all the good policies against NCDs. The challenge we now face is on how to raise awareness to as many people as possible,” the minister for Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, Ms Ummy Mwalimu said.

Ms Mwalimu spoke to The Citizen at the time when the country is left with less than two years to meet its objectives for the 2016-2020 Second National Strategic and Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of the NCDs. The plan came into force as a response to the growing burden of the lifestyle in Tanzania, where it is estimated that they now account for 27 per cent of all deaths.


The Vice President, Ms Samia Suluhu Hassan, launched a physical fitness drive two years ago to encourage every Tanzanian to embrace the habit of taking regular physical exercises in order to control NCDs. It was inspired by the theme: “Afya Yako Mtaji Wako.”

Is it paying off?

“Not really,” admits Ms Mwalimu. She says: “I must be frank that we really began well, but we didn’t meet our targets. However, I can see in some regions of the country, a few leaders are sensitizing people against the NCDs.”

“At an individual level. I can see an increase in the number of people getting involved in physical exercises, but we still have a long way to go at the community level. I think we will have to change the approach of raising awareness,’’ she suggested during an interview with The Citizen.

Who are more affected?

There is a widespread belief that people in the urban areas are hit hard by the NCDs compared to their rural counterparts.

According to Dr Elisha Osati, President-elect of the Medical Association of Tanzania (MAT): “People in rural areas are believed to be less at risk because they are more active than those in urban areas.”

However, various studies are warning that the NCDs are increasingly penetrating into the rural areas that is why Dr Osati says “Nobody is safe.” The expert says: “Addressing the NCDs now isn’t a matter that should be solved in hospitals….we now need to reach everybody in our communities.”

A countrywide survey that was carried out by the government in 2012 revealed that people across the country’s regions were increasingly getting exposed to risk factors, which lead to the NCDs.

“Tobacco users according to current figures stand at 15.9 per cent, alcohol drinkers (29.3 per cent), overweight and obese (34.7 per cent), raised cholesterol (26 per cent) and raised triglycerides (33.8 per cent),’’ reads the report, which has been embedded in the National NCDs Strategic Plan II (2016-2020).

Cost of treatment

This data comes against the backdrop of the fact that by the year 2030, the cost of treating diabetes would skyrocket to $16.2 billion in the eastern Africa-- Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.

This is an increase from $ 3.8 billion in 2015, says a study by Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology Commission.Yet, the government of Tanzania has been spending a huge sum of money on treating heart patients abroad.

But, after investing in specialised cardiac treatment, Tanzanians are spending less on heart treatment locally.

According to data obtained from the Jakaya Kikwete Cardiac Institute (JKCI) last July shows that the number of Tanzanian patients who were being referred abroad for specialised treatment of heart diseases had dropped by 95.5 per cent—from 159 patients in 2012 to only four patients in 2016.

However, it is still too explosive for people living with hypertension to maintain their treatment, says the MAT president, Dr Obadia Nyongole.

“We must focus on prevention, rather than cure,’’ he suggests.

In Tanzania, about 21,000 cancer-related deaths were reported in 2014 and 35,000 new cases are reported annually.

Despite the rise of cancer as a serious public health issue, the country has a few cancer treatment centres and facilities.

‘Cancer, if detected early, can be treated, thus saving the patient from unnecessary financial burden,’’ added Dr Nyongole. “Cancer requires long-term treatment and that’s why I insist that we must invest in prevention.”