With a global epidemic of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes killing some 17 million people prematurely each year, the United Nations health agency today called for global action that could save the lives of 36 million people who would otherwise be dead by 2015.
Over the same period these diseases, with the vast majority of cases stemming from a few known and preventable risk factors such as unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use, will cause estimated accumulated losses of nearly $1.1 trillion to three of the world’s most populous countries, China, India and Russia, according to a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO).
“This is a very serious situation, both for public health and for the societies and economies affected, and the toll is projected to increase,” WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said in presenting the report, Preventing Chronic Diseases: a vital investment.
“The cost of inaction is clear and unacceptable. It is vital that countries review and implement the health actions we know will reduce premature death from chronic diseases,” he added of the study’s goal to reduce the projected trend of chronic disease death rates by 2 per cent each year until 2015.
But these problems and their solutions lie outside the control of any one sector. To achieve the goal, all sectors from government, private industry, civil society and communities will have to work together. The report examines the vast evidence-based knowledge about inexpensive measures that can produce rapid health gains, such as salt reduction in processed foods, improved school meals and taxation of tobacco products.
“More and more people are dying too early and suffering too long from chronic diseases,” WHO Assistant Director-General of Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health Catherine le Galès-Camus said. “We know what to do, and so we must do it now.”
Currently, chronic diseases are by far the leading cause of death in the world and their impact is steadily growing. Contrary to common perception, this largely invisible epidemic is worst in low and middle income countries, where 80 per cent of all chronic disease deaths occur.
The risk factors are increasing as people's dietary habits change to foods high in fats and sugars while their work and living situations are much less physically active. Increased marketing and sales of tobacco products in low and middle income countries mean greater exposure to the risk of tobacco.
One billion people globally are overweight or obese, and WHO predicts that will rise beyond 1.5 billion by 2015 without immediate action.