The UK can teach the rest of the world a lesson about obesity

In Britain you don’t need a classroom to learn that being obese is a disease — the press will tell you daily

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The Independent Online

It’s now three years since a retired pastor in Eastern Africa, ‘lured’ local and international media into covering a story that made him a medicinal celebrity in just three months.

He had been unfamiliar to most Tanzanians and entire world, but his name, Rev Ambilikile Mwasapile, and his home district, Loliondo, suddenly became more famous than Tanzania’s wonder of the world, the Ngorongoro crater.

’Babu wa Loliondo’ (the grandpa of Loliondo) as he was fondly known, woke up from a dream one morning and claimed God had given him a vision about a herb that would completely heal people of cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Local newspapers in Tanzania ran stories of several notables (including cabinet ministers) who made pilgrimage to Loliondo, the wife of the DRC president Joseph Kabila among them.

Ambilikile could dispense a single dose of the herb (about 100 mls) from a tree known as Mugariga. Caught in media frenzy, people in Eastern and Central Africa rushed to the miracle man for the dose he sold at 500 Tanzanian shillings (30 cents, 20p). Upon hearing the story, many patients in Tanzanian medical facilities reportedly sneaked out of their hospital beds and others refused their modern medicine.

The New York Times reported that the old man had snarled traffic for miles in the remote village, with thousands streaming there for a dose of the wonder herb. A BBC reporter estimated that the queues to see the old man stretched for 26 kilometres, while Tanzanian newspapers and Kenyan TV channels claimed they were nearer 50. 

His 'cure' has been highly criticized by Tanzanian scientists for having caused more harm than good, but whatever it was, Ambilikile’s rise to fame and subsequent fall must serve good lessons in the fight against the diseases he purportedly could cure.

This scenario should remind us of Malcom X’s quote that “The media's the most powerful entity on earth…..They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent….Because they control the minds of the masses’’

The Loliondo craze is a typical case where media sensationalized a story and apparently brought Tanzanian politics to a standstill.

As it went on, the WHO released its 2010 Global Health Status Report, raising a world alarm that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) were on the rise in low and middle income countries. The report said 80 per cent of the NCDs burden was now occurring in developing nations, contrary to popular belief that these were "diseases of the west"

It said "Even in African nations, NCDs are rising rapidly and are projected to exceed communicable, maternal, perinatal, and nutritional diseases as the most common causes of death by 2030". Although the report pointed to diseases that afflicted most Tanzanians who flocked to Loliondo, it didn’t get nearly as much attention as the Babu story.

But three years down the line, Babu’s popularity has completely trailed off. The WHO predictions still hold water and Tanzanians still suffer from the same diseases. NCDs in the country are increasingly linked to the progressive substitution of traditional foods with cheap processed "junk food", as experts warn of rising cases of obesity. Less research is being carried out there, but the common site of people with over-size waist lines shame the researchers.

Although the obesity crisis seems to be a global threat, many societies seem to hold on to the mentality that being fat is a sign of wealth. Where I come from in Africa, men stroke their fat bellies in public as a sign that they have money. ’"You are fat, you are rich’." The philosophy seems  to be that a large stomach commands respect. This makes people associate big tummies with power, because most politicians have them.

But many media outlets back home are not seeing a story to tell about the monster of obesity. A screaming headline that would portray a fat person as sick would probably not sell, thanks to deeply entrenched cultural norms.

In western countries—where NCDs have been the main killer for many years, big lessons have been learnt. It’s rare to a day passes without an interesting health story on lifestyle diseases in the UK papers, which talk about the reality of the disease burden.

When I arrived in London last month, a screaming headline in The Sun caught my attention: ’Couple arrested for having a fat kid'. The story was carried in every other UK paper that day.

Parents from King's Lynn, Norfolk, had been arrested after a tip off by doctors that the couple had allowed their 11 year-old son to 'become obese’ and were being questioned on suspicion of child neglect and cruelty.

Before I read the piece, my impression was that being fat in the UK is a problem and a disease, contrary to the belief among a large section of societies in Tanzania that it is a sign of wealth.

Many researchers have linked obesity with most NCDs, and the media in the UK tends to shout whenever they smell a story linked to obesity. Just a few weeks ago The Daily Mirror stunned me with a headline which read: 'Dead body 'too fat' for morgue had to be stored in funeral director's car'. The story was about a funeral director who was denied a hospital morgue because the corpse in the car was apparently too large.

On another morning, The Daily Telegraph hit another interesting headline on the same subject: '32,000 British soldiers fail fitness tests amid fears of Army obesity crisis'. This emerged after findings published by The Sunday Times revealed that British troops had failed a key basic fitness test, raising fears of an army obesity crisis.

In the UK, you don’t need a classroom to learn that being obese is a disease — the media will tell you.

But as the media stirs up the campaign against the obesity crisis, UK politicians are also calling for tougher regulations on junk food — a lesson the rest of the world can learn, as obesity is a global threat.

The author is a health Journalist for The Citizen in Tanzania, now based at The Independent for the David Astor Journalism Award attachment programme.