May Measurement Month campaign launched to combat hypertension

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50% of South Africans with hypertension are undiagnosed and untreated.

More people die from Hypertension – more commonly known as high blood pressure (BP) than from any other illness1a and all signs point to this global pandemic getting worse.

The seriousness of the illness cannot be ignored and the need for consumer campaigns that highlight the risks of ignoring the illness have never been more important: more than 11 million people die worldwide from this chronic illness every year1b. In South Africa the picture is equally concerning: an estimated 53 men and 78 women over 30 die from the impact of hypertension every day2.

A BP test is the fastest way to detect and help diagnose the illness and in so doing, prevent avoidable deaths. In response to this crisis, the public health campaign, “Because I Say So” has been launched to encourage South Africans to get a BP test during May Measurement Month – a service offered FREE – only at participating pharmacies.

A collaborative drive, May Measurement Month is an annual global screening campaign orchestrated by the International Society of Hypertension (ISH), the Southern African Hypertension Society (SAHS) and Servier. It ran for the first time in 2017 and just two years later, during the 2019 campaign alone, over 1,5-million adults worldwide were tested. Every year since, the campaign has grown in significance. This (2023) is the fifth edition of “Because I Say So” and SIMONSAYS communications was again tasked with executing the local campaign.

This year the communications activities included an extensive publicity campaign that generated in excess of R51-million in PR value. Influencer support further drove the success of the digital campaign with Facebook and Instagram ads reaching over 1.5-million South Africans. An impressive post engagement rate of 18% was achieved – most of which was generated from animated and video content. Clearly South Africans are interested in learning about their heart health when the message is relevant and targeted!

Key messaging shared

Key medical professionals, including GPs, cardiologists and professors lent their support for media interviews – unpacking important messages in a way that consumers could make sense of what is typically a complicated subject.

In a health campaign like this one – all the messaging is critical – but one of the key take outs pushed at every touch point is that hypertension is a ‘silent killer’; there are no symptoms and you don’t feel ill until you have a cardiac event like a heart attack. Despite there being no indications or symptoms of ill health, this invisible illness can potentially, if left unchecked, lead to serious heart disease, stroke and even death. Proof of that – every three seconds someone dies from hypertension’s consequences3. Other complications can include heart failure, peripheral vascular disease, kidney damage, retinal hemorrhage, and visual impairment. With relatively few people making the connection between raised BP and the devastating consequences of the illness – awareness levels need urgent attention to curb the exponential growth of the disease in South Africa.

Audience focus

Hypertension is affecting more and more young adults. In SA, nearly 50% of people over age 15 have high BP4.  Even more alarming is only 50% know they have it5. For this reason – and because this demographic is one of the least diagnosed – the 2023 campaign message was heavily weighted towards the 40 to 60-year-old age group.

Dr Martin Mpe a Gauteng-based Cardiologist and past-president of the South African Hypertension Society says, “If you don’t have your BP measured you won’t know you have the condition until it strikes. Detecting hypertension early also helps minimise the risks.”

Adding to this he says, “A BP test is the only way to find out if your BP levels are elevated – a non-invasive and really quick measure that will immediately determine if levels are unacceptably high. A BP reading of 120-129/70-79 is considered normal. If you have BP higher than 140/90 immediately seek further medical intervention. With this kind of diagnosis, your doctor is likely to prescribe antihypertensive medication that’s taken every day. This is the only way to ensure that the treatment will effectively control blood pressure in the long-term and protect against the risk of cardiovascular events.

More than 1/3 of people diagnosed and treated for hypertension, stop their treatment after only six months while 50% of people with hypertension stop their treatment completely after one year.6 Mpe cautions that this lack of adherence prevents BP from returning to normal and has very important and severe consequences, including an increased risk of a heart attack or stroke7.

It’s all about the numbers

Reinforcing this, Prof Brian Rayner, nephrologist and past director of the Hypertension Institute at the University of Cape Town says, “Elevated BP is subject to the rule of halves. 50% of the population is unaware of their condition, 50% of those who are aware do not take treatment, and 50% of those who take treatment are not controlled, leaving only 12.5 % of the total population who are controlled.”

From this it’s clear that BP management is all about the numbers and these figures indicate that treatment goals are not being met and it’s time to retool.

Causes and consequences

Hypertension is most often caused by a combination of hereditary influences and poor lifestyle. Rayner says, “You can do little about your parents or your age but you can choose to live a healthy life and lifestyle changes should be sufficient to correct a BP of 130-140/80-90. This includes daily exercise, reducing salt intake, following a good diet high in fruit and veg, no excessive alcohol consumption, maintaining an ideal weight, managing stress and no smoking.”

Marketing collateral including posters and flyers were handed out at the testing sites, in pharmacy and medical specialists’ rooms – further reinforcing the campaign messages.

The frightening truth of the hypertension disease burden is the number of people with raised BP is on an upward trajectory, particularly in low and middle-income countries in Africa, with no signs of slowing down. Globally, adults with raised BP grew from 594-million to 1.13-billion between 1975 and 20158a. Of great concern is that over these four decades research has shown that the highest worldwide BP levels shifted from high-income countries to low-income, developing countries, and by 2015, sub-Saharan Africa joined central and Eastern Europe and south Asia as the regions with the highest global BP levels8b.

South Africa’s hypertension figures support this and the country has the highest rate of high blood pressure reported among people aged 50 and over for any country in the world, at any time in history, with almost 8 out of 10 people in this age group being diagnosed with high blood pressure9.

Importance of public health campaigns

Mpe says, “When one considers that 28 000 people die every day from the consequences of hypertension10 – that’s the equivalent of 70 jumbo jets crashing and killing everyone on board, it clarifies the importance of collaborative public information campaigns like BecauseIsayso and May Measurement Month. A simple BP test can be instrumental in avoiding these preventable deaths, and why we need to bolster awareness levels as a matter of urgency. Mobilising South Africans to get their BP screened has never been more important.”

“Servier has been committed to fighting hypertension for over 50 years, and we know there’s still a lot to do as an increased number of patients suffer from hypertension and its consequences,” says Servier’s Hypertension and Cardiovascular Product Manager, Michael van der Walt. “According to the World Health Organisation, cardiovascular disease affects a third of adults in the world; it’s the largest epidemic ever known to mankind. As non-communicable diseases like hypertension continue to rise, it’s even more important to raise awareness around the illness.”

South Africans were reminded to go to their local pharmacy, clinic or doctor to get tested and were directed to a participating pharmacy for testing: