By Jessie Taylor

Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease is the leading cause of death and disability in South Africa, after HIV and AIDS. This type of disease is behind one in every six deaths – but one woman is heading up the fight to change this.

At the helm of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, an organisation that works to halt the rise of premature deaths through cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease and to promote the adoption of a healthy lifestyle, is Professor Pamela Naidoo.


A growing health concern

Prof. Naidoo is a public health specialist with 29 years’ experience in the health sector across non-communicable and communicable diseases. She is a Registered Clinical Psychologist who holds a Master’s in Public Health, as well as a Doctorate in Philosophy (Behavioural Medicine). 

She previously held the role of Research Director of the Psycho-social Well-Being and Behavioural Interventions programme at the South African Human Sciences Research Council, but she also holds an Extraordinary Professorship in the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences at the University of the Western Cape. Prof. Naidoo is an Associate Professor Extraordinaire in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University and is also a National Research Foundation-rated researcher.

She devotes most of her time to her role at the Heart and Stroke Foundation.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation aims to promote cardiovascular and cerebrovascular health through advocacy, influencing policy, and providing information, tools, and support which will empower people to adopt healthy lifestyles and seek appropriate care early in the manifestation of the disease.

This is critical work as every day 225 South Africans die from heart disease and stroke. Cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease claims more lives than all cancers combined. 

Cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death globally, taking an estimated 17.9 million lives each year. This group of disorders affect the heart and blood vessels and includes coronary heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, rheumatic heart disease and other conditions. Around 80% of cardiovascular disease deaths are caused by heart attacks and strokes.

Globally, non-communicable diseases (the collective term for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, chronic respiratory disease and mental disorders) are the leading cause of death. They result in more than 60% of the world’s deaths, and 80% of those take place in developing countries like South Africa. 

The effects of non-communicable diseases is especially noticeable on the continent, where it is predicted they will overtake all other causes of death in Africa by 2030.


Time to take action against disease

Prof. Naidoo’s career has been guided by a desire to deal with the factors contributing to the diseases affecting so many in our society. This saw her moving away from working with patients on a one-to-one basis to specialising in public health. The move allowed her to deal with the wider issues affecting her patients and have a bigger impact on society and population health.

She has focused on non-communicable diseases for more than 15 years, working as CEO of the Heart and Stroke Foundation and as President of the African Heart Network

“I am a passionate advocate of reducing the morbidity and mortality rates due to heart disease and stroke. One of the things I am pushing for is zero tolerance of tobacco smoking, and I’m working with the South African government and other relevant stakeholders to achieve this, given that tobacco smoking is one of the strongest risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” she said.

This lobbying has already seen great success, with South Africa no longer allowing smoking indoors. 

but Prof Naidoo hopes it will be expanded to include legislation to curb outdoor smoking. She believes this is the first step to “not endangering the public, and taking environmental smoking seriously”.

“Outdoor smoking should be considered to be environmental pollution. We want to improve education – even people with a very healthy lifestyle are doing themselves a huge disservice by smoking,” she said.

The time to act against non-communicable diseases is now, Prof Naidoo insists, especially with changing lifestyles on the continent. 

In just 26 years, there has been a 52% increase in tobacco use in Sub- Saharan Africa. And rapid urbanisation in South Africa has seen a change in food consumption patterns, with people are consuming more calories, sugary beverages, and processed food.

These lifestyle choices are increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, which places additional pressure on an already heavily burdened healthcare system and impacts the livelihood of many South African households.



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