The past year-and-half since the Covid-19 outbreak, Nepal’s limited health resources all had a singular focus. But now that the second wave is waning and the lockdown has been eased, hospitals are once again flooded with patients with diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and kidney ailments.
Many of these patients had left these conditions untreated, and doctors say nursing them back to health will be more complicated. One of the most common disorders is hypertension or high blood pressure, which has become an epidemic.
Hypertension is a silent killer and one of the most common causes of chronic conditions like kidney damage that are often too costly to treat for the majority of Nepalis. Now, mental stress due to Covid has also added to the problem.
“Hypertension makes up for the majority of patients in hospitals these days now that the lockdown has been relaxed,” says cardiologist Prakash Regmi. “Also worrying is that many of these are new patients coming in due to Covid-related stress, a large number of people who had their blood pressure under control previously after treatment are also relapsing.”
To be sure, Nepal has been seeing a dramatic rise in hypertension patients even before the pandemic – some of them in their teens and 20s. A paper published in March in the International Journal of Hypertension, shows that since 2000, the hypertension rate in Nepal has been increasing at 3.5% per decade, and 44.7% of Nepali men will be suffering from hypertension by 2025.
The study also found that high blood pressure is disproportionately affecting men, the elderly, those without formal education, and those who reside in urban areas, and seems to be most common in Gandaki Province.
Worldwide, an estimated 1.13 billion people have hypertension, and it is responsible for 9.4 million deaths globally every year. In 2015, 1 in 4 men and 1 in 5 women had elevated blood pressure.
In Nepal, close to one-third of the adult population has some form of hypertension, but in urban centres the figure is as high as 40%, with 25% in rural areas suffering from it.
There is no specific cause of hypertension, but its biggest risk factor is high sodium intake. A survey in 2020 revealed that on average, the mean dietary salt intake of a Nepali per day is 13.3 mg. Most of the world consumes double the WHO recommended 5g of daily salt intake, increasing the risk of heart disease and strokes, which kills some 3 million people annually worldwide.
“Traditionally Nepalis have a preference for salty food, but now with higher consumption of processed and junk food, our salt intake has grown,” says public health expert Aruna Uprety, adding that the sodium content in packaged foods is often much higher than what companies claim.
In May WHO (World Health Organisation) released a new set of global benchmarks for sodium levels that will act as a guide for countries and industry to reduce sodium content in more than 60 categories of processed foods, in line with the global target of reducing salt intake by 30% and hypertension by 25%, both by 2025.
Another prominent risk factor is mental stress and lack of physical exercise, both of which have been exacerbated with people staying at home for months and under the uncertainty of the pandemic. Family history of hypertension also plays a significant role in an individual developing high blood pressure, as does smoking and drinking alcohol.
Undetected hypertension, and non-medication to control it, can lead to other disorders like stroke, heart disease, kidney failure, etc.
Despite the huge burden of the disease on public health and the economy, treatment of hypertension is ill-managed. Patients are never diagnosed because often times there are no prior symptoms.
And of the 50% who are diagnosed with high blood pressure, half ignore their condition and get no treatment. Of the remaining, 25% do get some kind of treatment but half of them again do not follow-up or take the correct dose of medication.
“All in all only about 10% of hypertension patients get proper treatment in Nepal. Lack of proper health monitoring system, as well as misconceptions about life-long medications, hasn’t helped,” says cardiologist Prakash Regmi. “This often leads to a point where treatment is either too expensive, or even unmanageable.”
Hypertension is first and foremost a lifestyle disease with strong ties to a possible failure of crucial organs in the human body. Its prevention and control are heavily dependent on an individual’s choice of diet.
A state-sponsored robust awareness campaign to focus on preventive measures and a strong healthcare system are urgently needed to reduce the epidemic of hypertension.
Says public health expert Aruna Uprety: “Mandatory blood pressure check-ups for certain age groups at fixed intervals is a good place to start. It goes a long way in reducing the cost of the disease and human lives.”
Stages of hypertension
- Normal: Less than 120/80 mm Hg
- Prehypertension (Elevated): Systolic between 120-129 and diastolic less than 80
- Stage 1 (Moderate): Systolic between 130-139 or diastolic between 80-89
- Stage 2 (Severe): Systolic at least 140 or diastolic at least 90 mm Hg
- Hypertensive crisis: Systolic over 180 and/or diastolic over 120
Types of hypertension
- Primary or essential: Most common high blood pressure among adults. No specific cause but risk factors include diet, age, physical activity and genetics.
- Secondary: Up to 10% of hypertension is secondary. Most often caused by another medical condition or the use of certain medicines.
WHO recommendation: 5gm/day
- Mental stress
- Lack of physical exercise
WHO recommendation: at least 150–300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity