South East Asia (SEA) is home to over 30 tribes of indigenous population groups who are currently facing rapid socio-economic change. Epidemiological transition and increased prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCD) has occured. In Peninsular Malaysia, the Orang Asli (OA) indigenous people comprise 0 · 6% (150,000) of the population and live in various settlements. OA comprise three distinct large tribes with smaller sub-tribes. The three large tribes include Proto-Malay (sub-tribes: Orang Seletar and Jakun), Senoi (sub-tribes: Mahmeri and Semai), and Negrito (sub-tribes: Jehai, Mendriq and Batek).
We studied the health of 636 OA from seven sub-tribes in the Peninsular. Parameters that were assessed included height, weight, BMI and waist circumference whilst blood pressure, cholesterols, fasting blood glucose and HbA1c levels were recorded. We then analysed cardio-metabolic risk factor prevalences and performed multiple pair-wise comparisons among different sub-tribes and socio-economic clusters.
Cardio-metabolic risk factors were recorded in the seven sub-tribes.. Prevalence for general and abdominal obesity were highest in the urbanized Orang Seletar (31 · 6 ± 5 · 7%; 66 · 1 ± 5 · 9%). Notably, hunter gatherer Jehai and Batek tribes displayed the highest prevalence for hypertension (43 · 8 ± 9 · 29% and 51 · 2 ± 15 · 3%) despite being the leanest and most remote, while the Mendriq sub-tribe, living in the same jungle area with access to similar resources as the Batek were less hypertensive (16.3 ± 11.0%), but displayed higher prevalence of abdominal obesity (27.30 ± 13.16%).
We describe the cardio-metabolic risk factors of seven indigenous communities in Malaysia. We report variable prevalence of obesity, cholesterol, hypertension and diabetes in the OA in contrast to the larger ethnic majorities such as Malays, Chinese and Indians in Malaysia These differences are likely to be due to socio-economic effects and lifestyle changes. In some sub-tribes, other factors including genetic predisposition may also play a role. It is expected that the cardio-metabolic risk factors may worsen with further urbanization, increase the health burden of these communities and strain the government’s resources.