Address By Her Excellency Reema Carmona At A Residential Camp For Children Hosted By The Diabetes Association of Trinidad and Tobago At The Preysal High School

I have always looked forward with great anticipation to being part of the official opening of the Annual Residential Children’s Camp for Children with Diabetes, now in its 16th year.  As Patron of the Diabetes Association of Trinidad and Tobago, this Diabetes Residential Camp highlights and sensitizes all and sundry, that Diabetes Mellitus is not a problem exclusive to our adult population.  Children have become quite vulnerable. Quite often, children, parents and caregivers suffer silently in the trenches as they battle this condition that has the potential to impact negatively on one’s quality of life, triggering various health issues associated with the ravages of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).

This Residential Camp for Children with Diabetes is a very powerful symbol of proactivity and genuine volunteerism at work. The opportunity is here afforded to children, parents and caregivers to discuss and receive much needed guidance from healthcare experts on prevention, treatment and control.  This Diabetes Mellitus Residential Camp also affords our young ones who require specific diets and special care, that rare opportunity to fully experience the simple but irreplaceable joys of childhood, bonding with their peer groups and being around and enjoying precious moments with friends and family.

I have to admit, when I received the letter of invitation from the Diabetes Association of Trinidad and Tobago, I was taken aback by a statement that the usual one-week Resident Diabetes Camp had been reduced to two days at Preysal Secondary School.  Among the reasons proffered were a downturn in the economy, the unavailability of suitable accommodation with available security and the human resource challenge to manage the camp for 24 hours.  We are living in trying times by virtue of a downturn in the economy.  However, there must be no downturn in doing good and supporting good initiatives. We must therefore up the ante to ensure that this Diabetes Mellitus Residential Camp does not shrink any further or die.  This is one initiative that this social demographic needs more often, and we must be resolute in our dynamism to consider returning to a one-week camp.  In this regard, I am especially pleased that the Honourable Minister is here with us and I wish to appeal to him and others in authority to do whatever they can to ensure that this camp expands rather than contracts, because it is touching lives and spreading the right message in a transformational way.  We in the Trinidad and Tobago Diabetes Association will have to look additionally at possible public-private sector partnerships that engage the corporate world and like-minded individuals, to hopefully solicit and source much needed funding, to ensure that this remarkable project thrives and expands.  Diabetes Mellitus and its growing statistics in the child population, must not be patronized in any way because it is a crisis that is real, immediate and urgent.

A laudable and notable component of this noble initiative, is the inclusion of nutritional management as a part of the discussion in this Diabetes Residential Camp.  The first step to efficiently and safely manage diabetes, is ensuring that the diets of children and adults with diabetes, include minimal starch, sugar and fats.  At the same time, the diets must be enjoyable, palatable and tasty.  We are often burdened with the misconception that healthy, nutritious meals are bland, tasteless and limited in variety. With the proper preparation, this skewed view can be eradicated.  As an active advocate for the eradication/ diminution of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), an incisive aspect of my advocacy has been to inspire and trigger a culinary revolution in the kitchens of Trinidad and Tobago.  As parents, both mothers, and I emphasize fathers, we have a duty and responsibility to our children to ensure at all times that, our children are fed with foods that are healthy.  We have a responsibility to nurture a culture of healthy eating habits that invariably will impact on the quality of life of our citizens.

For the past four years, I have spoken tirelessly about unhealthy diets and the need for health revolution among our citizenry, in the form of healthy eating habits supported by a regime of exercise, periodically or daily. In the face of those damaging advertisements on television and the internet, that glamorize unhealthy eating habits and choices, as stakeholders in the business of a good, healthy life, we need to make a stand. We therefore need to devise innovative ways and means of arresting this health crisis in the Caribbean.  This is why I have promoted the child-advocate model as a means of trying to push and encourage the message of healthy lifestyles. Put simply, the child and not an adult, becomes the messenger among his/her peer group.  Child advocates will promote healthy, sustainable lifestyles in the home, communities and the nation. I urge you coordinators and facilitators of this camp, that you ignite in the child that kind of child-advocate, who goes back to school or into their communities and spreads and lives messages of good health, wellbeing and exercise. The child advocate can warn his parents, his friends and schoolmates against improper eating habits, that can lead to diabetes and other health issues. An informed child advocate can therefore trigger a veritable health revolution in the society at large.

I want to impress on all of you to stay your course, maintain your focus in your advocacy against unhealthy lifestyles and Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). Well-grounded advocacy does not always bring instant results. For the last four years, I have advocated a radical attack on the cuisine and drinks served to our children from school cafeterias. I have called for sugarless, natural drinks, pure juices, the drinking of more water and foods without saturated fat, colouring, damaging flavouring and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). I have to thank the Honourable Minister of Health and generally the authorities for not only listening but hearing our cry in the Diabetes Association of Trinidad and Tobago and mandating the exclusion of drinks and juices high in sugar content from all school cafeterias.

In passing, I wish to have our teachers join our vanguard in this good fight regardless of what subjects they teach, by speaking to our children from kindergarten to university about the importance of eating healthy, exercising regularly and about the scourge that Diabetes has become. Teachers must be made sensitive and aware of how to administer insulin and be informed of when their students need to take their insulin. Their peers at school must also be sensitized on this so that they can remind and sometimes assist young diabetics.

There are simply too many persons with Diabetes on beds in our hospitals. I have been told that some 28% of such persons occupy those beds and I am not even dealing with the statistics of those with NCDs as a result of Diabetes. Amputations as a result of Diabetes Mellitus, are simply too high. The thrust must therefore not be about monitoring and control but rather prevention and prevention starts at home in the kitchens and in the lunch kits of our children. Convenience must not be the criterion that dictates what we eat and how it is prepared. We often hear of the need to subscribe to eating local but eating local can be our death knell. Traditionally, eating local has been associated with fried and greasy foods cooked in bad oil. Our vaunted local cuisine can be a mine field, given our obsession with oil, lard, butter, ghee, MSG and of course our well know Siamese twins, salt and sugar and not enough grains like quinoa and couscous and even cassava flour. We don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables and we have become slaves to American food consumerism. We can eat local and still eat healthy.

Our advocacy must therefore involve influencing the manufacturing world, to do the right thing, through legislative means because collaboration with such entities on issues of health, have not proven to be very successful. Legislation must therefore be in place to ensure that all foods sold, are properly labelled in terms of fat content, cholesterol levels, calories and these must form part of the advertisements on radio, television and social media, so that informed choices can be made by a more discerning public. There must be more visual and real information on eating healthy than women in bikinis. We must not glamorize bad eating habits and unhealthy lifestyles.

Finally, I have to congratulate unreservedly, the Diabetes Association of Trinidad and Tobago for not being deterred in doing good things. We have to continue to sell the benefits of genuine selfless volunteerism to increase the pool of volunteers in our search to create a better life for those who are vulnerable. There must therefore be no downturn in doing exceptional things and supporting transformational initiatives like this Annual Residential Camp for Children with Diabetes. You have my unstinting support and I am resolute in this. Continue to fight the good fight and soldier on.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.