Aruba’s Minister of Health and Sports Richard Visser achieved two firsts when he addressed the 66th session of the United Nations in September 2011.
He was the first official representative of the island to speak at a UN High-Level Meeting, and his presentation of the Aruba Declaration on Obesity with Special Attention to Childhood Obesity was the first time non-communicable diseases had ever been discussed at a meeting at this level. Indeed, it was only the second time health issues have ever been discussed at a UN High Level Meeting—the AIDS epidemic being the first.
The declaration was signed by 22 nations of the Americas when Aruba hosted the first-ever Pan American Conference on Obesity with Special Attention to Childhood Obesity in June 2011. It calls for nations to commit to the fight against childhood obesity, for governments, institutions and communities to share strategies, and for greater investment in promotion of a healthy lifestyle.
Obesity is on the rise in the Pan-American region, the consequence of a growing trend of poor eating habits and little physical exercise, and if unchecked is set to result in an increase in chronic diseases in the future.
The burden of non-communicable diseases is already having an adverse effect on health costs in Aruba itself, where the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased alarmingly among children.
“Aruba has a higher rate of obesity than the U.S.,” says Dr. Visser, who has carried out extensive research on the subject. “In adults it is 77% and 36% in children.”
Little used to be done towards prevention, but under Dr. Visser’s leadership, the Ministry is now taking an integrated approach towards educating citizens on the importance of a healthy lifestyle, nutrition, and physical fitness activities.
Dr. Visser has devoted much of his professional life to childhood health and nutrition. Born in Aruba, he studied in the U.S. and and is a renown expert in the field of childhood obesity.
His motivation is personal as well professional; when he was eight years old, his father died from obesity-related causes. “My father was overweight all his life,” he says. “If he or his parents had made better health choices when he was a child, my dad might be alive today.”
Recently, the Minister visited the White House, where he met with the obesity consulting team of First Lady Michelle Obama, who has made combating childhood obesity one of her main projects. The U.S. team has expressed interest in implementing some of the ideas outlined in the Aruba 2009-2018 health plan, which Dr. Visser helped draw up.
“we have taken addiction out of the justice system, and put it under healthcare, which then means that you treat it as a disease and not as a crime.”
“we have basically given all the power, the money and the resources to the non-governmental organizations. We have handed power to people who can really use it.”
“My father was overweight all his life. If he or his parents had made better health choices when he was a child, my dad might be alive today.”
Dr. richard visser,
Minister of Public Health
and Sport, speaking on behalf of the Kindgom of the Netherlands during a UN high Level Meeting
Dr. Visser’s fresh approach to obesity reflects the paradigm shift he has brought to the Ministry of Health and Sports since his appointment in 2009, which is characterized by modernization, use of technology, innovation, and education.
It is evident in the ministry’s approach to another significant health problem in Aruba—drug addiction.
“We have taken addiction out of the justice system and put it under healthcare, which then means that you treat it as a disease and not as a crime,” says Dr. Visser.
“The government takes responsibility for the main direction of where we want to go – coordination, administration, and technology – but we have basically given all the power, the money and the resources to the non-governmental organizations. We have handed power to people who can really use it.”
Representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) sit on a national drug agency that advises the minister. “Each NGO has direction – they do not just do whatever they want. They are financed by us, and they have to adhere to what we as a group decide. Our social system has also changed so that the government is paying for most of the treatment right now, and that is a huge switch and change in terms of how we deal with addiction.”
A 24-hour hotline has been set up to provide guidance for addicts and their families. Addicts who are aggressive or disturbing to the community can be compelled to undergo treatment.
“We have worked together with the ministries, the police and the judges here to design this program. The judge makes a decision and we can then pick them up and put them under mandatory treatment for one to two years. We have a capacity of about 150 for people who voluntarily go for treatment and a capacity of around 62 for aggressive patients.”
Tracking software supplied by DeHoop in Holland has been provided around the island, so that whenever an addict is admitted medical staff will know what treatment is required. As with obesity, there is an emphasis on prevention as much as cure, and trainers are taking a prevention program for addiction, alcohol, and drugs to Aruba’s schools.
Significant benefits to Aruba’s health system are expected to spring from a strategic partnership formed between the IMSAN medical center in San Nicolas and the American hospital chain Baptist Health International, including the establishment of an oncology facility for the treatment of cancer and an urgent care center.
Meanwhile a major expansion and modernization is planned for Aruba’s only fully-fledged hospital, the Dr. Horacio Oduber Hospital built in the 1970s.
This is expected to be completed in 2015. A new six-storey tower will enlarge the size of the hospital by 60%, and will include 90 new rooms for patients and a modern ER.
Dr. Visser promises state-of-the-art technology and a design linked to efficiency and functionality.
“We are looking to have an exemplary hospital. We are set up to be totally compatible with e-care, m-medicine etc,” he says.
“Aruba has the great fortune to have a high standard of care, and with this new project infrastructure catches up. If you build the right environment, in itself your quality of care will increase.”