Tackling the silent five

[Image] Popular Olympic medallist Caster Semenya was on hand to share health tips with the walkers.

[Image] Total South Africa takes the health of its staff seriously.
(Images: Janine Erasmus)

[Image] The Johannesburg Zoo combines health and conservation through the regular events and walks for various causes that it hosts.
(Image: City of Johannesburg)

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Janine Erasmus

The Johannesburg Zoo and global fuel company Total South Africa recently teamed up to encourage South Africans to get healthy, by organising a fun walk for employees and their families, with an emphasis on combating the so-called soundless five medical conditions – hypertension or high blood pressure, hyperlipi­daemia or high cholesterol, obesity, blood sugar, and HIV.

These conditions may be present without any accompanying symptoms, hence their description as silent killers.

According to the Government Employee Medical Scheme (Gems), even people who consider themselves to be fit can be affected, and high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as diabetes, especially, can develop without any obvious signs. These conditions are often discovered almost by accident, and only after already causing damage.

The Total walk extended over five kilometres of winding zoo roads and paths – one kilometre for each medical condition.

“These five conditions need to be given much more emphasis as they have a major impact on the long-term health of our staff,” explained Musa Langa, Total South Africa’s wellness manager.

Knowing that these conditions are among the factors that can lead to absenteeism and under-productivity, the company has taken a firm interest in the health of its staff. During 2011 it ran a wellness challenge, providing staff with a number of tools with which to improve their personal health. These included access to doctors, dieticians and individual programmes.

The company also runs an employee assistance programme which helps staff to manage issues such as finance, health, stress, and work/life balance. If employees are diagnosed with HIV, Total South Africa covers the cost of antiretroviral medication. The company also has a gym, car wash, convenience shop and ATM at its head office in Johannesburg.

Total South Africa was recently certified as one of the country’s best employers for 2012/2013 – reasons cited include excellent working conditions, a dedication to transformation, and recognition of the importance of inclusion and diversity.

A full range of tests was available at the zoo after the walk, for all five conditions, with experts available to give advice on areas that needed improvement.

Celebrities weigh in

Former world junior flyweight champion “Baby” Jake Matlala and Olympic silver medallist Caster Semenya were on hand to encourage the walkers.

“Keep exercising and eat healthy food,” said Semenya. “Stay away from junk food, and make sure you have a good breakfast.”

She added that people should believe in themselves and their capabilities.

Semenya overcame controversy in 2009, when her gender came into question after she dominated the track in her world debut season – she was just 18 at the time. At the 2012 London Olympics she achieved a silver medal in the 800m final, to the delight of the nation.

Matlala said it’s important that people know the different ways in which they can boost their health, such as these five vital checks.

“Days like this are important,” he said, “where companies are encouraging people to get healthy. Follow a good diet, and do exercise – you don’t have to run, but even a family walk on Saturdays or Sundays will help.”

Matlala also advised parents to get involved with their children’s wellbeing, and lead by example. “We must teach the young ones, so that they can start their good habits early in life.”

An unhealthy nation

In South Africa the rate of heart disease is high – every eight minutes a South African has a heart attack, and every fourth one is fatal.

Results of a 2010 survey conducted by pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline reveal that 61% of South Africans are overweight, obese or morbidly obese. In addition, 70% of women over the age of 35 and 59% of black women over the age of 15 are overweight or obese. Young people are affected too, as the survey revealed weight problems in a worrying 25% of teenagers and 17% of children under the age of nine.

About six-million South Africans suffer from hypertension, and five-million have high blood cholesterol levels.

All of these conditions can be prevented by living a healthy lifestyle, and if they are already present, can be managed through good eating and regular exercise.

Knowledge is power

Knowing the right numbers is important, says Gems. Blood pressure should be lower than 120/80, and cholesterol levels should be lower than five. People with a cholesterol reading higher than seven should visit a doctor, who may prescribe medication and a strict diet.

In terms of weight, experts advise a body mass index of less than 25kg per metre of height squared. A higher reading means that the heart may be under unnecessary strain, and can lead to high blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as diabetes.

The high blood sugar levels found in people with diabetes can damage the heart’s blood vessels – this could eventually result in angina or even a heart attack. A blood sugar reading of between 3.3 and 6.5 is normal.

In the case of HIV, prevention is better than cure, and there are a number of various protective strategies against contracting the disease. Living a responsible lifestyle is the main factor, which includes the use of condoms always, even during pregnancy, and keeping sexual partners to a minimum.