Is South Africa the unhealthiest country in the world?

Posted on 16 January 2020

According to the WHO and The Indigo Wellness Index, South Africans are dangerously unhealthy and in 2019 South Africa was awarded a dubious honour of being the unhealthiest country in the world.

This is according to the Indigo Wellness Index, which tracks the health and wellness status of 151 countries. This reach makes the Index one of the largest ever published – by contrast, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development Better Life Index tracks 50 countries.

The latest Indigo Wellness report draws on data released by the World Health Organization, the World Happiness Report, and other publically available, locally relevant health data. The world’s countries are tracked, rated and compared according to ten primary criteria: blood pressure, blood glucose, obesity, depression, happiness, alcohol use, tobacco use, exercise, healthy life expectancy, and government spending on healthcare.

The Index graded each country – in total, 95% of the world’s population – by assigning a score between 0 and 1 to each measurement. Anything under 0.3 is regarded as a poor score, relative to other countries on the Index. A fair score is between 0.3 and 0.5, while a good score is above 0.5.

South Africa’s numbers make for interesting reading. The country’s rates of depression and tobacco use, for example, were rated 0.4, while government spending on healthcare, at 0.6, received the country’s highest rating. Relative to many developed countries, these scores are within the average range.

But a few crucial factors combine to bring South Africa’s overall health score down: inactivity (0), blood pressure (0.2), obesity (0.2) and diabetes risk (0.2). Worryingly, life expectancy also received a score of zero. Overall, South Africa was graded last of all countries, making it the year’s most unhealthy country.

These numbers reflect an uncomfortable reality.

In 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 28.3% of adults in South Africa were obese. This was the highest obesity rate for the sub-Saharan African countries recorded by the WHO. Extending that definition to both overweight and obese, the WHO found that over 50% of the population is at risk.

The WHO warns that global skyrocketing rates of obesity are associated with increased consumption of high-fat and high-sugar foods, increased consumption of highly-refined and processed foods, decreased consumption of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes and increased sedentary lifestyles.

These rates are also associated with an increase in rates of high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and premature death. But there are solutions.

Dr Essop Solomon, a specialist physician with an interest in diabetes at Mediclinic Pietermaritzburg, suggests that regular health screenings can make a critical difference for those who struggle with their weight – helping doctors to pick up early warning signs and motivate their patients to make the necessary changes to prevent or reverse the onset of Type 2 diabetes.

Dr Etienne Swanepoel, a specialist in bariatric, laparoscopic & vascular surgery at Mediclinic Durbanville, has performed over 350 surgical procedures to help patients overcome the symptoms of obesity and cure Type 2 diabetes.

The Index shows that all over the world, there is a disconnect between GDP and overall health. Whereas many countries with a high GDP – a measurement that often correlates with high healthcare spending – do not reflect positive lifestyle factors. In fact, this research may suggest that many rich countries (including Canada, which was ranked as the overall healthiest country in the world) experience high rates of depression and obesity.

Published in Business