Three out of four men in South Africa with hypertension (high blood pressure) don't know that they have the condition, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation (HSF). The figure among women is not much lower, since half of women with hypertension are unaware of their illness, says the foundation's Vash Mungal-Singh. This is despite the fact that 230 South Africans die of high blood pressure-related heart attacks and strokes every day, she says.
"Most people feel well and see no need in screening for hypertension because its symptoms are not visible or traumatic. But this trend must stop," she said. "People do not realise how important it is to control their blood pressure; in fact, they prioritise cancers, for example, more than high blood pressure."
Dubbed the silent killer, hypertension is "the leading cause of strokes and heart disease in South Africa, and is the fifth top cause of death", said Singh.
But the HSF estimates that 80% of heart diseases can be prevented by leading a healthy lifestyle, watching one's weight, and reducing salt consumption.
Salt: the biggest culpritSingh points out that high salt intake is one of the risk factors of hypertension, a condition affecting an estimated 6.3-million people in South Africa - one of the highest rates in the world.
"Millions of people do not realise how much salt they are consuming, both at the table and hidden in processed foods."
She added that the biggest culprits were bread, cereals, margarine, gravy and soup powders, sausages, polony, meat pies and fast food. All of these foods have high amounts of salt added to them.
A hypertension study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association shows that black South Africans have a stroke rate twice as high as that of white people.
According to the study, black populations are more vulnerable to hypertension than other races due to a genetic predisposition that permits different causative factors or differing degrees of the same causative factors, such as high salt intake, obesity, weight gain and alcohol consumption to precipitate the disease.
"The only way out of this problem is for all to try and reduce salt intake and check our blood pressure more often," said Mungal-Singh.
According to the national health department, most government-run hospitals and clinics countrywide offer blood pressure screening, and many pharmacies offer the service for free or for a small fee.
HSF also says South Africans consume a whopping 40g of salt a day. Government aims to reduce this high intake to the World Health Organisation's recommended 5g a day by the year 2020. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi signed salt reduction legislation last year requiring the food industry to reduce salt content in processed foods.
Thandeka Moyo is a Bhekisisa fellow
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