Experts blame NZ exports for diabetes in Pacific

  • Breaking
  • 06/01/2014

An expert in diabetes says the Pacific Islands need to stop being used as a dumping ground for cheap meat and junk food.

Every year New Zealand exports thousands of tonnes of fatty meat to the Pacific, where poor diet is blamed for soaring rates of diabetes.

At the Pacific Eye Institute in Suva, lasers are used to destroy abnormal blood vessels in a patient's eye. Diabetes affects 40 percent of the adult population in Fiji, and vision loss is one symptom of the disease.

"Diabetes with persistent high sugar levels damages the small blood vessels at the back of the eye, causing swelling and also the development of abnormal blood vessels," says ophthalmologist Dr Biu Sikivou, associate director at the Pacific Eye Institute.

It's called diabetic retinopathy.

The institute's facility, set up with the help of the Fred Hollows Foundation, is the only of its kind in the Pacific. But the need for screening and treatment is growing.

Dr Sikivou says Fiji's seen a gradual shift away from traditional food to high-fat, imported goods like canned meat, mutton and lamb flaps, and that's having serious effects.

"It's really alarming because now we are seeing younger people presenting for the first time, even with sight-threatening retinopathy, even people in their 20s and 30s."

Last year, New Zealand sent more than $7.5 million worth of prepared or preserved meat, meat offal or blood to Pacific Island countries. Total exports of all meat fetched more than $86 million.

"Stop sending all this unhealthy food to the Pacific," says Dr Sikivou. "We are not a dumping ground for all this food. They know that there is a high prevalence of diabetes. They can help us by not sending this type of food to the Pacific."

But Judith McCool from University of Auckland's School of Population Health says not all the products are from New Zealand, and Pacific countries need stricter trade regulations.

"A lot of what you can buy in supermarkets in Pacific Island countries has come from not necessarily from New Zealand and Australia; it's come from other countries in which the labelling is in another language," says Ms McCool. "There's no idea what the salt, sugar, fat contents of these products are and these are the products that people are selling to feed their families."

Like the Kiwi drink-driving ads, Tongan community leader Melino Maka wants targeted campaigns to educate Pacific people about healthy eating.

"There's a lot of simple stuff that we can start off with, like having a vegetable garden, teaching them what to grow and how to grow and how to consume it in a healthy way," says Mr Maka.

Every year, New Zealand puts $9.6 million towards health initiatives in the Pacific. But the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says banning certain items is unlikely to solve the problem, as unhealthy food can be found anywhere. 

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source: newshub archive