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Health care in the Marshall Islands: Tackling Obesity

Health care in the Marshall IslandsThe Marshall Islands is a set of beautiful islands and atolls, but this dispersed nature can make it difficult for residents to receive health care. As pictured above, Health Fairs are a way for the population to receive equitable health care.

The Marshall Islands houses just two hospitals and 56 smaller health care centers scattered around its array of islands. This dispersed health care system limits the Islands’ ability to provide quality health care, and its .46 doctors for every 1,000 people — below the worldwide standard of 1.5 — worsens that. This disunion in the health care system and high poverty rates make it extremely difficult to treat non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

The Problem

People commonly view obesity as a disease plaguing wealthy people and often associate it with developed countries. However, there is a strong link between poverty and nutritional health care challenges. A lack of adequate nutrition because of poverty in developing countries leads to a prolonged unhealthy diet, driving up obesity rates. One example is the nutritional concerns in the Marshall Islands: 60% of adult women and 50% of adult men suffer from obesity. Additionally, 30% of the Islands’ urban population — double that in rural atolls — living below the national poverty line displays a stinging link between obesity and poverty.

The primary cause of obesity in the Marshall Islands is poverty. A lack of resources infringes on the population’s ability to sustain a healthy diet. Because of this, residents have replaced their traditional diets with cheap imports and canned goods, high in salt content, which increases the risk of obesity. Even worse is obesity’s alarming comorbidities, like heart and diabetes-related issues. Fortunately, the Marshall Islands has implemented efforts to fight obesity.

World Bank Helps Future Generations

Developing poor eating habits early in life is a gateway to obesity as an adult. The Marshall Islands government found that most children’s diets consisted of heavily processed sugar and junk, because of financial hurdles to access nutritious food. To combat this issue, the World Bank donated $12 million to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into Marshallese diets in 2019. The government approved plans for further funding to reduce unhealthy eating habits, but it has been backlogged due to border closings amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonetheless, health care in the Marshall Islands is fully aware of its obesity crisis and is doing its best to stop it from spreading to future generations.

Blue Foods

Blue foods are food from an aquatic source. Unfortunately, nuclear radiation from nuclear testing during the WWII era has damaged some of the Marshall Islands’ blue food sources. In an effort to make a profit while simultaneously conserving the Islands’ rich sea resources, they drew up the Vessel Day Scheme at the UN Food Summit. To promote a sustainable food system by 2030, The Marshall Islands set limits on when people can fish, generating up to $30 Million and preserving their tuna populations for future use.

While the economic stride may seem unrelated to health care in the Marshall Islands, this conscious effort to grow blue foods provides healthy alternatives to the sugar-filled canned imports people rely on that cause obesity. Additionally, the solution directly addresses poverty in the Marshall Islands by aiming to improve the economy. A key pillar to reducing the Marshall Islands’ obesity and poverty rates lies within a strong and sustainable fishing scene.

A Community Effort

A successful method to prevent any disease is education, and obesity is no exception to that. To achieve educated citizenship, the World Diabetes Foundation created the Majuro Youth Lifetime Program, with a mission to reduce diabetes and obesity through a community-based approach. They approached the issue by surveying primary schools and pinpointing issues. As a result, they were able to educate 216 teachers across eight schools on healthy eating habits and lifestyle choices. They were also able to plant gardens at each of the schools, providing nutritious food for malnourished students impacted by poverty. The project ran from 2017 to 2020 and is a powerful example of how people work towards better health education and health care in the Marshall Islands.

One cannot understate the impact poverty has on developing countries. The efforts of the Marshall Islands provide hope for a future where everyone living there has access to healthy and nutritious food. As the efforts to reduce poverty and improve nutrition continue, the resilience and health of the Marshall Islands and its people, no doubt, grow stronger.

– Aditya Arora
Photo: Wikimedia Commons