China's new wealth threatens to take heavy toll on health

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The Independent Online

China's increasing wealth is stretching the country's waistlines and threatening an epidemic of diabetes, cancer and other conditions that could kill up to 80 million people in the next 10 years, health officials say.

Chinese people are typically slim, but there are many more overweight children and adults in evidence in urban areas, a sign that people are switching from healthy local staples to sugar-laced Western foods. Lung cancer is also a major killer, and while smoking is banned in some public places and on transport, people still light up almost everywhere else.

Diseases such as bird flu and Sars have been the main public health issues to hit the headlines in China, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) is warning that more needs to be done to combat the "lifestyle diseases" which already claim more lives every year worldwide than malaria, Aids and tuberculosis.

Last year, 35 million people worldwide died of chronic illnesses - 60 per cent of all deaths. One in five of these were in China.

And the figure is set to rise. Better standards of living have accompanied China's relentless economic advance, but so too has a significant rise in unhealthy living. Many typically Western killer diseases are becoming alarmingly frequent in China.

The traditional diet is divided along geographical lines into those who eat wheat-based food such as noodles in the north, and the rice-eaters of the south, both nutritious sources of healthy carbohydrates. But fast-food restaurants are springing up all over the cities as Chinese people opt to spend their cash on oily, fatty foods rather than cooking traditional dishes at home. And increasing numbers of people are doing sedentary office jobs. City dwellers eat twice as much meat today as they did in the Eighties, and young men and women are smoking from an earlier age.

New lifestyles mean people have less time to exercise and some 15 per cent of urban youths are overweight. With famine a not-so-distant memory, the belief that a fat child is a healthy one is common, leading to more obese children in school playgrounds.

"Lifestyles, eating habits and the healthcare system have changed, and so have diseases and death rates," China's deputy health minister Wang Longde told a conference in Beijing, which included health officials from all over the country. "Chronic diseases don't only affect people's health; they undermine the working strength of society,"

There is little public awareness about diabetes among Chinese people, and spending cash in a Western eatery is often seen as a way of showing off new wealth.

The WHO said if nothing was done to combat the rise of chronic illnesses, China would face a major public health problem, which would ultimately impact on economic growth. It estimates that fighting these illnesses will cost China £300bn in the next decade.

The WHO warned that death rate from infectious diseases such as Aids would rise by about 2 per cent over the next 10 years and the mortality rate from chronic diseases would go up by almost a fifth.

Chronic non-communicable diseases account for about 80 per cent of deaths in China. Theseinclude cancer, diabetes, strokes, heart disease and asthma.

"The bad news is the death rate from chronic diseases in China is higher than in the United States," said Dr Robert Beaglehole, the WHO's director of chronic diseases and health promotion. "The good news is that these losses are preventable." He urged the Chinese government to do more to stop people smoking and to rein in salt, sugar and saturated fats in food.