Cardiovascular Diseases Becoming Major Health Threat in Ethiopia


By Seble Teweldebirhan

Heart Desease in EthiopiaAddis Ababa, December 27, 2012 ( - Cardiovascular diseases (a group of disorders of the heart and blood vessels) were mainly considered the problem of the developed world just a few decades back. However, currently, reports suggest that it is becoming a primary health concern for middle and low income countries. The reports show that the proportion for the epidemic in developing countries already accounts for almost 10% of the cases and it is likely to become the developing world’s leading cause of death. According to World Health Organization (WHO), if the current trend continues, by 2015, 20 million people will die because of cardiovascular disease.

Unbalanced nutrition, reduced physical activities and tobacco and alcohol consumption are among the behaviors most commonly associated with the increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In Ethiopia health complications related to cardiovascular, especially for the urban communities, is becoming the major health threat. This threat is mostly manifested with obesity, high blood pressure, dyslipidemia, heart diseases and diabetes. 

Globalization, urbanization and the change in diet and lifestyle in Ethiopia, for those who are exposed for it, are strengthening unhealthy eating habits, and considerably decreased physical activities. Today in Ethiopia, doctors in urbanized areas are consumed with treating cases related to cardiovascular diseases. The number of people with high blood pressure, diabetics and heart diseases is growing at an alarmingly rate. Doctors associate the sudden and unexplained death, which is now often heard in Ethiopia, with cardiovascular diseases and believe that if the country fails to take proper measures, it will soon become the number one cause of death.

Dr Fesseha, an Associate Professor at Tikur Anebesa Hospital, says that it is necessary to take preventive measures since the activities and lifestyle of this decade will decide the health situations of the next decade. “It is important to take a proper care at early age. We have to teach children and young people to take extra care, look after what they eat and engage in physical activities and exercise as much as possible. Prevention is very easy and all it takes is commitment for once health and proper information. However the treatment is very expensive and the country might not be able to afford it” he says.

Since Piazza is a cultural center for Addis Ababa where food and fun exist for all, it is a right place to observe the changing and growing eating habits for the residents of Addis Ababa. Piazza has several cafes and restaurants that provide both traditional and modern foods and fit the living standards of many Addis residents.

To start with, Piazza is a historical place for raw meet lovers. People of all age, sex and living standards crowd the meat shops and restaurants to eat one of the most beloved foods in Ethiopia – raw meat. Of course, eating raw meat is not a new habit for Ethiopians. However, nowadays, raw meat is criticized for causing serious health danger for those who love it dearly.

For long-time raw meat lovers, the taste has changed a lot. The change, they say is the way the oxen are fattened. In the old days, when Ethiopians were absolutely organic and the worry was what to eat and never whether it was healthy or not, the meat always came from naturally grown cattle. The elders of the raw meat eating tradition say that the cattle’s in the old days eat naturally grown grass which has a lot of organic and healing contents.

“I have been eating raw meat all my life,” said Ato Ayalew, 75. “I know how raw meat tasted in the old days. It was healthier and it tasted very organic. Back then you wouldn’t see people getting health complications because of raw meats and people use to eat a lot more meat than today. Our fathers lived a long healthy life but now this generation is struggling. That is because our food is not organic anymore. Our grains are subjected to fertilizer and our meat comes from cattle that grow with a needle and processed food that is only meant to fatten them in unnatural manner. How can we be healthy with all these artificial things we are eating?” he said.

For the new generation of raw meat lovers, they have no prior taste to compare the meat they are eating. However, they joke that people are getting blood pressure and heart attack not because of the meat itself but because of the price of the meat. “We pay 180 birr for one kilo raw meat and it is not even enough for two people” said Yohan, 23. “We should expect a lot of people to be sick after paying this much money for a meat,” he laughed.

However people still crowd the meat shops and eat as much as they could. The meat shops are always busy. Neither the health complications nor the price does not seem to stop people from eating raw meat. “It is an addiction” said Seifu, a meat shop owner and a butcher himself. “I know most of my customers are not rich. But they save just to come here once a week or may be once a month. Raw meat is delicious and once you taste it you are hooked forever,” he said. Seifu thinks that meat is accused for health complications because people do not do enough physical exercise after eating. “My customers eat raw meat and then go to the office and sit for the rest of the day. They drive or take taxi to their homes and they sleep. After taking that much amount of fat, it’s obvious that there has to be some mechanism to burn it. The previous generations did a lot of physical exercise. They use to walk and work manually. That is why meat never caused them a problem,” he says.

At the same time, new eating habits among the emerging ‘middle class’ is developing a lot faster. The booming café businesses in Ethiopia that serve dominantly sugary foods are popular especially among the youth. Since the cafes are the places where most urbanized people spend their spare time (largely because there is no choice of places to spend spare time), the foods they serve is consumed by many. In addition, fast foods are also breaking to the market slowly. Though still expensive in relative terms, fast and fried foods are the new favorite of the new generation. In fact eating fast food, processed and packed foods are the sign of wealth and modernization in the present Ethiopia.

Indeed just a decade ago, people would have done anything to be overweight in Ethiopia. In a country where the majority remained undernourished, extra fat on a human body was a sign of wealth and success. Even the Diaspora, after all the junk food they consume in western countries, their overweight body was something they proudly bring to their home country.  However, globalization played yet its brain washing game and suddenly, in Ethiopia being fat is not desirable anymore. Today, as much as people love to be seen eating fast and sugary foods (which makes them look cool and rich), they would do anything to lose all the weight if possible. Therefore, their suffering as a result has now become not only biological but also psychological.

Girma, a gym owner says that most of his customers now are people who are overweight and whose hearts are at danger and ordered by doctors to lose weight. In addition, he observes on everyday basis that people who are overweight are becoming more embarrassed by it. “I don’t know if it can be a concern for the entire nation. However, I have so many customers at my gym who face a serious health threat because of their weight. Their self-esteem is also attacked by it. That is definitely a result of a change in diet,” he said. Girma advises his customers to eat more vegetables and fruits and do more physical exercise. However, he says his customers for the most part are unable to relate what they eat with the changes they observe on their body. “Our country is poor and still many people struggle to find a daily meal. As a result there is no much lesson and information about the serious consequences of overeating and consuming foods that endangers health. This kind of talk might simply sound an advice that come from the spoiled. However, I say, in a few years, we will witness the danger so it’s better to talk about it now” he said.

Researches also suggest that alcohol intake and smoking, especially among the youth is growing fast in Ethiopia. In fact, to observe this, one has to visit the night life especially in Addis. Smoking has now become very popular among the youth, especially university and college students. Chat chewing is also the common life style for many in the urban areas. According to experts, Chat plays a considerable role especially in aggravating hypertension and heart diseases.

Dr Fesseha is concerned about the ever changing life style that he says eventually will be adopted by many members of the society regardless of class. “Basically the problem is because urban people do very little physical activity. With the intake of foods with high carbohydrate and cholesterol, people are destined to encounter severe health complications. The number of people who are affected by cardiovascular diseases is increasing shockingly. There are several other factors for this but changing eating habits and life style play the main role. It is time to be concerned and take proper preventive measures” he said.


Seble Teweldebirhan



Seble Teweldebirhan is Addis Ababa based Reporter for She can be reached by sending email through this form.



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