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Preventable Diseases Like Diabetes, Hypertension Harm More Latin Americans Than 'Poverty Diseases' Like AIDS

First Posted: Oct 02, 2014 03:29 PM EDT

According to Ecuador's health minister, chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension, are the biggest threat to Latin Americans' health.

While in Washington for an American Health Organization board meeting, Ecuadorian Health Minister Carina Vance said preventable diseases are the ones harming Latin Americans the most.

"Chronic diseases are the cause of most deaths among our populations and those are diseases we can prevent," she told EFE. "That is the big challenge."

According to Vance, chronic illnesses, which also include cardiovascular diseases and cancer, "without any doubt" cause more deaths and disabilities than "poverty diseases," such as infectious ones like AIDS (over 1 million deaths per year) and dengue fever.

Diabetes has become the biggest cause of death in Ecuador in the past decade. This is a reflection of Ecuadorian habits and way of life.

"Currently a big challenge are non-infectious diseases related to social behavior and the ability of the government to provide the means to make information accessible to the population and to implement other strategies," Vance said.

To fight these diseases, Ecuador is considering taxing "unhealthy consumption."

"There is an important role for the government to play, but there is a role also for the population that is important," Vance said. "The difficulty is to achieve those changes in behavior when we are swamped by ad campaigns for foods without any nutritional value but that contribute to high levels of fat, salt and sugar in the diet."

The country has also started using a color-coded label system to educate citizens about the foods they choose.

"Latin America must be a region where Health care moves from being a privilege for the few who have money to buy a service to a region where health care is a fundamental and basic right for all," Vance said.

The good news, is that Ecuador is now rid of onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness. After Colombia, Ecuador is the second country to eliminate the disease, which "is a parasitic disease ... [that] cause a variety of conditions including blindness, skin rashes, lesions, intense itching and skin depigmentation," according to the World Health Organization.

Now, Vance said, the plan is to eradicate malaria. The disease, which is caused by infected mosquito bites that deliver parasites which "multiply in the liver, and then infect red blood cells," according to WHO, has been seen less in Latin America but is still damaging.

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