Islanders with ‘urban’ health problems

One would expect them to be healthier than people living in concrete jungles amid smog, stress and fast food. But although they live in one of the country’s most beautiful regions, the Aegean, these islanders have even greater health problems because of a unique form of urbanization brought about by tourism for a few months every summer and their virtual isolation during the rest of the year. At a time when distances have shrunk, islands such as Anafi, Kassos, Leipsoi, Halki, Astypalaia, Nisyros and Tilos are days away from civilization, sometimes even weeks – as long as it takes a ship to get there when bad weather sets in. These outlying islands have been adopted by a group of seafarers who set out to visit them every spring in inflatable boats. Love of the sea and of adventure is their driving force, but also a desire to do something for those who are in need. In the summer of 2004, the «Aigaio» group consisting of 40-50 members, many of them doctors, in cooperation with the Greek Cardiology Center (directed by Professor Pavlos Toutouzas), began an epidemiological study showing the health indicators, habits and way of life of the islanders. The conclusions, according to Toutouzas and cardiologist Dimitris Hasapis on behalf of the Aigaio group, reveal the consequences of isolation and the absence of any preventive care, information or concern for one’s health. The sample group was older than the general population – 27 percent of the men and 31 percent of the women are over 65 years of age, compared to 17 percent of the general population. About 80 percent of the islanders said their diet was based on products imported from other parts of the country, and seven in 10 said their diet was influenced by local transport. As ships are late in coming during the winter months – delayed by 15-20 days at a time – it is not unusual for islanders to exclude fresh fruit and vegetables from their diet. Nor do they eat much fish, preferring to sell it. They eat a good deal of lamb, which exists in plentiful supply, since livestock breeding was once subsidized. As a result, cholesterol levels are higher than those of residents of Attica, as are levels of hypertension and diabetes, risk factors that undermine their own health and their children’s future.