By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

0418-Feature-WHD_BlogHigh blood pressure poses a global health threat, affecting nearly a billion people. Even in a developed nation like the United States, where roughly 80 million U.S. adults have high blood pressure, only slightly more than half have it under control.

World Hypertension Day is May 17, and to ramp up, health organizations in 46 countries – from Hypertension Canada to the Cameroon Heart Foundation – will spend a month screening people for high blood pressure. The goal is 3 million screenings, according to the World Hypertension League, an umbrella organization of 59 national hypertension, stroke and kidney disease societies that organizes the effort.

In China, for example, roughly 2,000 healthcare professionals will screen people for high blood pressure during a spring celebration. The Stroke Foundation–Australia is partnering with a large pharmacy chain in April to screen 50,000 people during “Australia’s Biggest Blood Pressure Check.” India’s goal is 100,000 screenings, which it hopes to reach by working with a large private hospital chain.

Soccer and baseball games are expected to be popular venues for screenings. Many smaller, remote communities have nurses or pharmacists conduct screenings at churches, malls or food markets.

“Every single screening is important in our eyes,” said Mark Niebylski, Ph.D., World Hypertension League CEO.

High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for death worldwide, responsible for roughly 7.5 million deaths, according to a 2009 report from the World Health Organization. It’s also a risk factor for heart disease, the world’s leading cause of death, as well as stroke and kidney disease.

The condition is fairly well controlled in the United States and Canada compared to other nations, Niebylski said.

In less developed countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, he said the control rates “are really unfortunate” – about 7 percent, according to research.

A contributing factor is the lack of healthy foods. Some poor countries rely on donated food that’s heavily processed and extremely high in sodium, which is known to increase blood pressure, Niebylski said. “They get processed foods, and get tons of it.”

Even in areas where food is less plentiful, obesity is an issue.

“The younger you start becoming obese, the earlier you develop hypertension,” Niebylski said.

Culturally influenced diets of salt-cured meats combined with insufficient water and a total lack of fruits and vegetables contribute to the obesity problem, he said.

There are also disparities in countries such as India, with its hierarchical caste system. The poorest people have extremely high blood pressure, Niebylski said. Native Americans face similar challenges in the United States.

Countries must raise awareness about how to prevent and control high blood pressure, and need “systems and services” that promote healthy lifestyles and provide quality, inexpensive drugs, according to a 2013 WHO report. Patients are lucky to be diagnosed with high blood pressure if they happen to be treated for the flu or a broken leg, Niebylski said.

Improving hypertension control rates internationally will require raising awareness among young people and providing culture-specific training for healthcare workers to measure blood pressure correctly and better educate patients about the condition and why it’s important to treat, Niebylski said. It will also require increased funding for doctor-led efforts in underserved areas.

“Low-income nations are the hardest hit and have the fewest resources to throw at the problem,” Niebylski said.