Salt-- A Silent Killer Of Africans

Henry Neondo, CNS Corespondent, Kenya and Editor, Africa Science News
No African food is complete without salt, usually added in cooking and/or at the table when food is served. But a new study released at the World Congress of Cardiology, being held in Melbourne, show that such practices predisposes them to high risk factors of cardiovascular disease (CVD) - hypertension or high blood pressure. The study also reveals that according to research, thousands of lives and millions of dollars could be saved by the implementation of national targets to reduce salt consumption.

Experts agree that most populations consume too much salt. “Too much salt is a hidden killer. Excess salt leads to higher blood pressure, which is one of the main risk factors for cardiovascular disease. CVD also poses a large economic burden to society”, commented Dr David Watkins, who is the study’s lead author and a physician-researcher at the University of Cape Town and the University of Washington.

In South Africa, the government has set targets to reduce salt intake to less than 5g a day per person by 2020 by regulating the food industry and spreading the message for people to use less salt at the table. Previous studies by the Heart Foundation in 2008 found that on an average, a black South African took 40g of salt per day. This is 10 times more than the maximum recommended quantity. In 2013 legislation was passed to place mandatory maximum levels for salt in bread and other common processed foods, since most of the salt we eat comes from processed food.

In the UK, a health survey in England found that 83% of black men and 85% of black women added salt in cooking. More than a quarter (28%) of the same population added salt at the table. This is in contrast to the rest of the UK population (and indeed the Western world) where 75% of salt intake comes from processed foods.

“Many studies have looked at the health benefits of reducing salt in various parts of the world, but ours is one of the first to estimate some of the economic impacts. We took the case of South Africa, where the government recently passed ambitious regulations to reduce salt in processed foods. Our study indicates that in South Africa, successfully implementing national targets like these could not only save thousands of lives each year but also avoid millions of dollars in health care expenses and thousands of cases of poverty from medical bills,” said Watkins.

Results suggest that South Africa’s salt target could reduce CVD deaths by 11%.  By reducing the risk of developing CVD in the first place, it would also prevent households from having to pay costly health care fees, which can lead to additional financial deprivation. The money saved by households could be approximately US$4 million per year, mostly among middle-class families. The South African government, which underwrites health care fees for lower income households, could save approximately US$51 million per year in health care subsidies alone.

The study used economic surveys and epidemiological studies to calculate the potential impact of salt reduction in a cohort of South African adults. It estimated changes in death rates from stroke, ischemic heart disease, heart failure, and end-stage kidney disease. It also estimated changes in health care spending on CVD that would result from lower rates of CVD.

The study calculated that South Africa’s salt reduction targets would translate to an average of 2.9 - 3.3 gram/day lower salt intake per person, which is similar to targets that have been developed and achieved in other countries.

There is also increasing international pressure in the health community and in governments to reduce the populations’ salt intake, which will not only save lives (by reducing the burden of CVD) but also result in huge economic gains by reducing expenditure on healthcare. 

Henry Neondo, Citizen News Service - CNS
4 May 2014