“Chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes have reached global epidemic proportions, and now cause more deaths than all other diseases combined”, says Dr. Mark DeHaven, the Colvard Distinguished Professor in the College of Health and Human Services at UNC Charlotte.
Nowhere is this more evident than in China, where a population of 114 million adults has diabetes. The rise of chronic illness has been occurring for years, and will continue to soar in combination with the largest migration in human history: agriculture people migrating to non-agriculture people, or in Chinese, ‘Nong Zhuan Fei’ (NZF). NZF consists of more than 250 million Chinese agriculture people who are moving to urban areas.
The Chinese government issued a policy to urbanize 75% of China’s population by 2020. The goal is to create tremendous demand for a mass consumer society. As such, the Chinese government is purchasing land from NZF people, giving them tens of thousands of dollars and a rent free apartment. On one hand, NZF people are benefiting by the urban move as many are no longer impoverished, and the risk of contracting infectious disease decreases with the availability of public health and care. On the other hand, the risk for lifestyle diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes soars due to the increased availability of processed and high sugar foods, and a decrease in physical movement due to mass transit.
DeHaven and a group of Chinese medical providers are tracking health changes occurring in NZF people and their research found that many are developing diabetes after the urban migration. Moreover, those with diabetes have a significantly diminished quality of life, according to the research.
DeHaven and his team utilize a type of research called community based participatory research (CBPR). The research team not only gathers data from NZP people, but also provides them with knowledge, resources, and interventions to reduce health risks and promote disease prevention. In keeping with the philosophy of true CBPR, researchers live in the same high rise buildings with NZP people in Harbin, China, during the data collection phase.
In practice, DeHaven’s research links community clinics with hospitals, and then builds up social technology to work with medical technology. “So you have community health partnerships, lay health promoters, and neighborhood organizations. Link these three together; train them in health in order to prevent disease and then work collaboratively with clinics and hospitals so everyone has a coordinated approach to improving community health. The real difference is that this approach is community driven, as health professionals work with the community”, says DeHaven.
The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization estimate that 80% of chronic disease is preventable; this DeHaven takes very seriously, and is a key principle of his research. Part of DeHaven’s research model is to combine clinical care with epidemiology, while partnering with community health organizations. By combining clinical science, collective responsibility, and informed social action, DeHaven’s research links all levels of the community together, so that everyone has a role in addressing healthy lifestyle modifications; borne out of this is a concerted community effort to sustain preventative health strategies.