Mexico Banks on Multipronged Approach to Awareness

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 12:39

Faced with a myriad of health issues, especially obesity and related diabetes and high blood pressure, Mexico is taking a multipronged approach to reduce the impact on the public health system. Education to promote lifestyle changes and prevention awareness campaigns are a priority as entities in the public and private sector look to put the population on a healthier path.

The OECD points out that Mexico has attracted attention for its comprehensive approach to tackling diabetes and other chronic diseases through reforms such as prohibiting unhealthy foods in schools.


“Secondary prevention (i.e. the early detection and adequate treatment of chronic diseases) is much less well delivered,” the OECD states in its Review of Health Systems Mexico for 2016. It continues: “Data from ENSANUT (Mexico’s National Health and Nutrition Survey) show that, of those found to have high blood pressure (an important and treatable risk factor for strokes and heart attacks), 47.3 percent were unaware that they had the condition. Of those aware, only 73.6 percent were receiving treatment and less than half of these had their blood pressure adequately reduced. Similarly, of those known to be diabetic, 14.2 percent (almost 1 million Mexicans) had not seen a doctor for routine management of the condition in the past year. This means that diabetes is very poorly treated at the population level: 24.7 percent of diabetics were found to be at high risk of complications such as strokes, heart attacks, renal failure or loss of vision and 49.8 percent at very high risk.”

It is not a pretty picture but efforts are under way to spread healthier practices. Isabel Crowley, Representative for UNICEF Mexico, says one way to improve health is to start at the beginning, by focusing on breastfeeding. “In Mexico only 14 percent of mothers exclusively breastfeed for six months, which is the lowest rate in Latin America,” she says.

During the 2015 World Week for Breastfeeding, Minister of Health José Narro pointed out that between 2012 and 2015 breastfeeding had increased from 14.4 percent to 30.8 percent. Still that remains the lowest number in the region and puts the country barely above Indonesia, Taiwan and Cape Verde, he said in a statement.

Higher breastfeeding rates could have a solid impact on children’s well-being because it helps reduce obesity and other problems since maternal milk adapts to the children’s growth and acts as a first vaccination, according to Crowley. There is also a financial impact as switching from powdered milk to breastmilk creates savings, she says. UNICEF has partnered with TV Azteca on a breastfeeding promotional campaign and Crowley says the government could make further improvements through extended maternity leave and baby-friendly hospitals.

Improving infant health is also a target of the private sector. Nestlé, for one, is adding probiotics to its infant formula product line. Javier Luna, Nutrition, Regulatory and External Affairs Sr. Manager for LATAM at Nestlé, says that thanks to probiotics the company’s clinical trials focused on improving infant health have registered a 90 percent success rate. He says Nestlé has already added probiotics and prebiotics to 150 of its products and he projects this number will increase.

Groups like the Mexican Diabetes Association are actively implementing strategies to encourage healthy eating, which can reduce obesity and diabetes. Their program “Restaurantes por la Salud” already has 22 affiliates. Gabriela Allard, President of the Association, wants people to read labels and buy products that will enhance their health. Chronic disease can be a huge burden on the healthcare system and severely impact the productivity of companies. Allard says it may take two or three generations to get people in the right mindset but she believes Mexico is going in the right direction.


According to the National Health and Nutrition Survey, diabetes costs the country US$3.87 billion in health services alone, which amounts to US$707 per person. Doctoralia Mexico says 15.5 million people suffer from this disease in Latin America but Mexico is home to 10.6 million. This translates to 87,000 deaths a year

Education is the key to obesity prevention, says Jorge Treviño, President of the Anti-Obesity Center. Mexican society is too tied to its eating habits and obesity can lead to diabetes, high-blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, fatty livers, varicose veins and many other health issues, he says. Treviño believes that insurance companies authorizing obesity surgeries could help solve the problem.

Getting more people to the gym would also help. Sports World, a growing fitness club chain, is seeing impressive churn rates of less than 2 percent as of March this year, says Fabián Bifaretti, the company’s CEO. This follows the company’s decision to invest in its personnel and train them in hospitality. “We encourage a community feel so that our clients integrate to a social group that will encourage them to stay,” he says. The company hopes to reach 70 clubs within the next four years, 20 more than they have now.

According to the 2014 International Health, Raquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) Global Report, annual revenues for the fitness sector in Mexico amounted to US$1.5 billion with nearly 8,000 clubs open around the country. On the downside, this only represents 2.2 percent of the population.

Companies also have a vested interest in the health of their workers. Grupo Body Systems has successfully entered the corporate wellness sector, helping their clients create savings by lowering work absenteeism, attendance and personnel rotation. By minimizing sedentarism in workers it has also helped reduce insurance costs, says Fernando Núñez, the company’s Director General. Grupo Body Systems' Wellness 360 program provides nutritional, physical and mental support for employees. The group’s success is leading it to 40 percent growth this year, he says.

Medix’s consumer division opened two brands -- 180° and SlimCenter -- in Mexico, focused on weight loss. 180°, which opened in February 2016 and became profitable within a month, is equipped with some of the same medical devices found in hospitals, says Francisco Rodríguez, Consumer Division Director. These deviceshelp clients reduce fat, firm and tone muscle and skin and remove expression lines.

Food supplement firm Omnilife, in the middle of a global expansion push, believes results can be achieved faster by aiding diets with products such as theirs. “There are habits that are part of the Mexican culture, such as traditional foods, which tend to have a high caloric and fat content with a low nutritional contribution that could be harmful to people. People are more receptive to us when we show them results that habit changes can provide when they supplement their diet,” says Jorge Vergara, the company’s CEO.

Omnilife also has a program, called Reto 90, to address the need to change people’s eating habits with the target of reducing weight. “It is a challenge in 90 days, which aims to ingrain the habits change. The winner gets a monetary prize. It is a whole package and includes dietary practices and recommended exercises. It is also used to help teach people better habits so that they can continue the positive changes,” Vergara says.

It may be true that the fastest route to health is through the stomach, with healthy eating. Bensi Levy, Director General of the Green Corner, says that newly attained social consciousness has led to exponential market growth in the organic food sector, despite the rough financial patch the country is experiencing. Raw, vegan and gluten-free products are new, and encouraging, trends in the sector.

“It is important to keep in mind that a balanced lifestyle is vital for a healthy body,” says Levy. “Therefore, organic foods must be supported by consistent exercise and stable sleep cycles. Unfortunately, the market is shifting to an industrialized organic pattern, which takes away from the basic principle of creating a rich biodiverse environment.”

Integrative medicine is another avenue to pursue. Luis Suárez, CEO of SANAR, says acupuncture and ozone therapy are among the services in demand in Mexico. “Every mother and grandmother knows how to use herbs and plants,” says Suárez. “This is a more formalized version of that and it has been very well received.”