While HIV/AIDS and cancer loom large on South Africans’ awareness radar, most people give little thought to the world’s number one killer: cardiovascular disease (CVD).
To show that no-one is immune, the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA (HSFSA) together with Unilever has launched a hard-hitting new awareness campaign, Think Red. Seven celebrities – Mark Pilgrim, Robert Mawara, Gerry Rantseli-Elsdon, Michael Mol, Uyanda Mbuli, Kerishnie Naicker and Liezel van der Westhuizen – are lending their support to the campaign by talking about how they have personally been affected by cardiovascular disease.
Gerry, Michael, Uyanda, Kerishnie and Liezel have all witnessed the devastation of CVD in the lives of people they love, while Mark and Robert have faced it themselves. “It can happen to you, so take action before it’s too late” is their message to all South Africans.
Luckily for Mark, well-known radio DJ and TV presenter, his heart attack happened during a routine doctor’s visit. “I was standing in front of my GP when it happened. Had I not been, I would have died. No one could believe it. I was fit, I ate correctly – I did everything right. Everything EXCEPT getting my cholesterol levels checked. If I had known my ‘numbers’, I might have caught the problem before it became a reality,” says Mark.
Supersport’s Robert Mawara was caught equally unawares. He developed sharp chest pains after a gym session and only just made it to hospital in time for emergency surgery. “It’s scary to quantify your life to the minute, but I was 23 minutes away from death. My family had no history of heart disease, I just hadn’t looked after myself or checked my cholesterol,” says Robert.
Each year, CVD – a general term for diseases of the heart and blood vessels, including coronary heart disease and stroke – kills 2.5 times as many people as do all cancers combined. According to Dr Vash Mungal-Singh, CEO of Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa, “CVD is now the biggest single killer-disease worldwide. Over 17.5 million deaths are caused by CVD every year, and it is projected that this figure will rise to 20 million by 2020 and 24 million by 2030. Yet 80% of these deaths are preventable with diet and lifestyle changes.”
Dubbed ‘Africa’s hidden epidemic’, CVD is likely to cause more deaths in Africa than AIDS, TB or malaria. A 2009 report on Heart Disease in South Africa found that heart attacks and stroke often strike during victims’ working years, removing breadwinners from many families. Where victims survive, their lifespan is shortened by an average of 14.2 years.
The main objective of the Think Red campaign is to educate South Africans about the risks and prevention of CVD. While age, gender and genetic make-up are risk factors that cannot be changed, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, smoking and physical inactivity are risk factors that can be controlled through an active lifestyle and a healthy, balanced diet.
A 2002 World Health Organisation report attributes 56% of coronary heart disease to high cholesterol levels alone, yet most people don’t know they have it because there are no warning signs - similarly to hypertension, which is known as the “silent killer”. As our celebrity spokespeople found out, it’s possible to live a healthy lifestyle and still have high cholesterol or high blood pressure. “It is essential to have a regular finger-prick cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure screening and to seek medical advice if any of these is raised i.e. if your total cholesterol reading exceeds the recommended 5.0 mmol/l, blood sugar is more than 4 to 8 mmol/l, or blood pressure is 140/90mmHg or higher” says Dr Vash.
More than 75% of CVD is caused by lifestyle-related factors like smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar or their combination – and a staggering 80-90% of people who die from coronary heart disease have at least one major risk factor that is influenced by lifestyle.
“Far from painting a doom-and-gloom scenario, the statistics indicate that much can be done to prevent CVD. Knowing the risk factors, getting your levels checked and living a healthy lifestyle can be the difference between life and death,” concludes Dr Vash. “Our special thanks also to our partner and sponsor, Unilever, without whom we would not be able to bring this campaign to fruition. Unilever’s commitment to the health of all South Africans as well as the company’s unwavering support of our worthy cause bear testament to its well-deserved status as one of the premier brands in our country.”
The Heart and Stroke Foundation launched the Think Red campaign at a formal dinner banquet in Cape Town on 1st February 2012. The function brought together health representatives, media personalities, local celebrities and leaders in the nutrition industry, and laid down a challenge to all South Africans:
Don’t ignore your heart. Think Red. It could save your life.