Healing The Sick Man Of The UK

Merthyr Tydfil has become synonymous with ill health – its very name has become a byword for disease and long-term sickness. Such is the extent of the ill health problem in the borough, it regularly tops the leagues that no one else wants to win.

At the start of the year Merthyr won the dubious accolade of being named as the unhealthiest place in the UK, thanks largely to its high levels of sickness and its poor diets.

Data from the 2001 census found that a third of people in the borough had long-term limiting illnesses, while it has also been reported that Merthyr has some of the highest proportion of people on sickness benefits – one in five were claiming incapacity benefit in 2005.

And the combination of poor health, deprivation and relatively high unemployment, also saw Merthyr move up five places to become the third worst place to live in the UK, according to a Channel 4 programme.

There is no doubting that a significant percentage of people in Merthyr do suffer from some form of ill-health, but is it fair to characterise – and even write off – a whole section of Wales, simply on the basis of ill health alone?

Nicola John, director of public health for Merthyr Tydfil Local Health Board, said, “We do tend to come top, but a lot of the surveys have focused on historical data, but things are starting to improve.

“If you look at the survey in the new year, it categorised ill health according to existing health and future health problems – we were highest on the existing problems, when it looked at future problems, we were way down that list.

“The other thing you have to bear in mind is that we are moving further and further away from the picture painted by the 2001 census. Part of the problem has been the socioeconomic profile of Merthyr, but this too is improving as there has been a lot of inward investment and there are now more employment opportunities – we know that unemployment is linked to ill health.

“An awful lot of work has been done by us and other organisations in Merthyr to help people overcome the circumstances that they find themselves in. The industrial legacy is also key, but we are moving away from that and the diseases associated with industrialisation.”

Merthyr Tydfil Local Health Board has set up a large range of programmes in recent years which have been designed to help people make healthier choices – regarded as key to helping people change their lifestyles.

Mrs John said, “We do have a large focus on schools because children are not only our future, but they also take these healthy living messages back into their homes and communities. We have, for example, been working with parents and schools to develop a leaflet on healthy lunch boxes, so that parents are learning alongside the children, which they find useful.

“We have also done an awful lot to make it easier for people to increase their levels of physical activity – we work very closely with the council to provide pieces of equipment for every primary school. We are giving people the tools that enable them to undertake physical activity.”

Attention has also been focused on helping people at risk of health problems – such as heart disease – to improve their overall health.

The Heart Links programme has been particularly successful in Merthyr Tydfil. A sport and exercise programme for people at risk of developing heart disease, it creates individually tailored programmes for people who are referred, rather than simply handing out vouchers for subsidised or free gym membership.

Mrs John said, “One lady I spoke to described how she had difficulty walking across the room before she joined the group. When I saw her, she was doing everything and told me that she couldn’t stop because she was about to go to her swimming class. Again, it’s all about supporting people to enable them to live healthier lives.”

Brendan O’Harte was one of the first people to sign up to the programme when it started almost five years ago at Aberfan Community Centre. The 73-year-old, who lives in Aberfan, has an enlarged heart, which can lead to high blood pressure. Although he has never felt ill, he has suffered from light-headedness when running up stairs or bending to sit down.

He now attends exercise classes twice a week, swims for an hour and takes part in a regular scenic walk. He also plays bowls three times a week. Mr O’Harte said, “We were fairly active before we joined but we would find any excuse not to do things – if it looked like rain we wouldn’t go out. But now we will.

“This is not a diet regime, but as we have begun to feel more healthier, we have started to read the labels on foods and have become a bit more aware of what we’re eating.”

Another major area in terms of disease prevention and health promotion work in Merthyr Tydfil is smoking – 27% of men and 28% of women smoke – targeting both adult and child smokers.

Mrs John added, “It’s not just about telling people what to do, because people largely know what to do. It’s about enabling that to happen.”