5 health conditions of special concern in Singapore

Health Xchange
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Due to environmental and genetic factors, certain health concerns have a higher prevalence rate in Singapore as compared to other countries. Here are five specific health issues -- myopia, colorectal cancer, nose cancer, type 2 diabetes and thalassaemia — that Singaporeans should pay attention to.

1. Myopia (short-sightedness or near-sightedness)

WHY: Children in spectacles are all too common in Singapore which has one of the highest prevalence rates of myopia — an eye condition that affects a person's ability to see distant objects clearly — in the world. At least 30 per cent of our Primary One kids have defective vision (as compared to 12 per cent in Hong Kong). And as these children progress to upper primary school, the percentage goes up to 60 per cent. Professor Donald Tan, Medical Director at the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) explains: "Genetically, the Chinese are predisposed to myopia. So Chinese children who spend hours in near-focus activities, such as reading, craftwork, playing computer games and using handheld devices like mobile phones are at an even higher risk."

PREVENT THIS: Parents can encourage good eye care habits, such as holding the work as far away as possible and not lying down to read. They can also get their children to pursue outdoor activities like badminton or rollerblading.

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2. Colorectal cancer

WHY: Singapore has one of the highest incidence of colorectal cancer in Asia. It is also the most common cancer here. Dr Choo Su Pin, Senior Consultant at the Department of Medical Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), observes: "Every year, 1,500 Singaporeans are diagnosed with this form of cancer which affects men and women alike." Those who are over 45 and have a family history of colorectal cancer are at a higher risk. However, less than 10 per cent of colorectal cancers are due to inherited gene defects, adds Dr Choo.

PREVENT THIS: To reduce your colorectal cancer risk, don't smoke, because the inhaled smoke can carry carcinogens to your colon. Also, keep active and maintain a healthy weight. Diet-wise, cut down on red meat, fat and alcohol. High-fibre foods may have a protective effect. If you are already showing symptoms like persistent diarrhoea or constipation, bloody or thin stools or mucus in stools, unexplained weight loss and abdominal discomfort, consult a doctor.

3. Diabetes

WHY: Diabetes mellitus is a chronic disease where there is too much sugar (glucose) in the blood. It is caused by either the inability of the pancreas to secrete a hormone called insulin, or the body's inability to use insulin properly. Dr Goh Su-Yen, Head of the Department of Endocrinology at Singapore General Hospital (SGH), says: "In Singapore, nine per cent of the adult population has diabetes. Studies on diabetes among the Chinese, Malays and Indians have shown that the latter two races have a higher incidence of the condition." Recently, international researchers found that six genes could trigger type 2 diabetes in people of South Asian ancestry, like Indians. In fact, they are up to four times more likely to develop the disease than Europeans.

PREVENT THIS: Being overweight, more than 40 years old or pregnant, or having a family history of diabetes, put you at a higher risk. Eat a balanced diet and control your sugar intake to keep blood glucose levels under control. Also, exercise regularly to maintain a healthy weight. Naturally, do not smoke and limit your alcohol intake.

Related article: Are you at risk of diabetes?

4. Nose cancer (nasopharynx or nasopharyngeal cancer)

WHY: In Singapore, nose cancer is the 6th most common cancer in males. The cancer is actually known to occur more frequently in Asia and North Africa than in the rest of the world. Dr Terence Tan, Senior Consultant, Department of Radiation Oncology, National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), says: "Nose cancer mainly affects the Chinese (especially those in the Cantonese dialect group), and to a lesser extent, Malays." It affects men more than women, and typically occurs between the ages 35 and 55. Having a family member with nose cancer can mean that you are genetically predisposed to it.

PREVENT THIS: There are no sure ways to prevent nose cancer. Avoiding salt-cured foods and preserved meats which are high in nitrates, might help to reduce the risk of the disease.

Related article: Learning to cope with nose cancer

5. Thalassaemia

WHY: Thalassaemia — an inherited blood disorder that often results in anaemia —  is the commonest genetic condition in Singapore. Dr Angeline Lai, Head and Senior Consultant, Genetics Service, Department of Paediatrics, KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH), explains: "About 5 per cent of our local population, or 1 in 20 persons, is a carrier for thalassaemia, which could be alpha-thalassaemia, beta-thalassaemia or haemoglobin E (HbE).

PREVENT THIS: As thalassaemia is an inherited condition, it cannot be prevented with lifestyle or diet changes. Dr Lai adds: "Being a carrier for thalassaemia (thalassaemia minor) does not cause any symptoms and does not require any treatment. If both husband and wife are carriers of the same type of thalassaemia, they have a risk of having a baby with a severe form of thalassaemia (thalassaemia intermedia or major). Lifelong treatment, including regular blood transfusions, is needed in these forms of thalassaemia. Thalassaemia screening for couples planning to have a baby is available so that they can be aware of their risk."

This article was written by Jaclyn Lim for Health Xchange, with expert input from the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC), National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH).

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