High hopes for Mauritian obesity roadmap

Mauritius recently made a significant step forward in its ongoing struggle against noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). Indeed, the presentation of the Mauritius Acceleration Plan to Stop Obesity 2024-2030 on April 25 by the Stakeholders’ Roundtable on Actions to Accelerate the Prevention and Management of Obesity represents a clear signal of the country’s intention to curb the scourge of the NCDs which account for 80% of the disease burden and 85% of mortalities.  

The document, which aims to achieve a 5% reduction in the prevalence of obesity across all age groups by 2030, was elaborated during a three-day symposium in Balaclava, Mauritius. Organized by the Ministry of Health and Wellness (MOHW) in collaboration with the WHO Mauritius Country Office, the multisectoral event brought together a cross-section of around 100 stakeholders from government, the private sector, civil society and academia to come up with a series of concrete actions to combat the obesity epidemic which affects 36.2% of the Mauritian population.

Participants in the rountable were unanimous on the need to tackle obesity which,  as a key risk factor for a host of NCDs, such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and certain types of cancer, among others, represents a significant public health burden. Zainab Tourabally of the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Mauritius’ Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, said that the roadmap “comes at the right time as combatting obesity hinges on a whole-of-society approach.” She added that more data on the barriers and enablers underpinning current and desired outcomes needs to be collected to better understand the requisite cultural shift.

The Mauritius Acceleration Plan to Stop Obesity 2024-2030 will now have to be presented to Cabinet for approval. If the plan is endorsed, it will be implemented using the “100-day sprint” method, a five-phase process devised by the World Health Organization to facilitate its operationalization. Using an evidence-based approach, the obesity roadmap prescribes a broad range of policy tools – political, fiscal and legal – aimed at tackling what is known as the obesogenic environment which encourages unhealthy lifestyles.

Obesity is also taking an increasingly heavy financial toll on the country’s finances. In 2019, the direct and indirect costs attributed to obesity and overweight were estimated to amount to around Rs18.1 billion, or 2.78% of GDP.  According to forecasts by the Global Obesity Observatory, the economic costs associated to obesity and overweight could rise to 4.6% and 8.89% of GDP by 2030 and 2060, respectively.

Recommendations contained in the Mauritius Acceleration Plan to Stop Obesity 2024-2030 include: the regulation of marketing of unhealthy  food, policies to incentivise local food production linked to public food procurement, an increase in the taxation of sugar sweetened beverages and its extension to other unhealthy foods, the reinforcement of physical activity in all educational settings, the integration and scaling up of obesity prevention and management health services at primary health care level, and a behavioural change communication campaign at community level.

Meetali Badhain of the Mauritius Chamber of Commerce and Industry welcomed the involvement of private sector actors in the roundtable. She hopes that the MCCI will continue to play an active role in the process. “We are a key stakeholder and would like to contribute to combatting obesity. But it can’t be limited to taxes and bans; a new culture needs to be created involving different lifestyles. This long-term plan should be embedded in the actions of all stakeholders.”

The stakeholders’ roundtable was facilitated by a team of WHO experts in the fields of fiscality, data, public health law, nutrition and food safety. The implementation of the roadmap will benefit from the close support of the WHO’s Division of UHC/Healthier Populations and Division of Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact.

Indeed, following the country’s impressive advances in terms of tobacco control — in 2023, Mauritius became only the third country in the world to adopt all of the WHO’s MPOWER measures to reduce tobacco use at best practice level – it was chosen to be part of the WHO’s Healthier Populations Billion: Delivering Impact programme, becoming one of only six countries in the world, and the only one in the WHO Regional Office for Africa (AFRO). WHO believes that Mauritius can build on this experience to achieve similar success in combatting obesity.

In her opening address, the WHO Representative, Dr Anne Ancia, cited Mauritius’ experience in tobacco control as a potential foundation for further public health gains: “We know that Mauritius has the political will, as well as the know-how, to accelerate the fight against NCD risk factors in a multisectoral and holistic manner. And this roundtable on obesity is further proof of Mauritius’ commitment to tackle the NCD problem. Today we are talking of another opportunity to replicate this expertise and to invest the necessary willpower to tackle other NCD risk factors, such as unhealthy diets.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of World Health Organization (WHO) – Mauritius.

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