Non-communicable diseases must be tackled as development issue in poor States – UN

13 April 2010

Non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular and chronic respiratory illnesses, diabetes and cancer are imposing a much greater burden on the poorest countries than on richer economies and must be tackled as a development issue, United Nations health experts warned today.

“It’s not like we have to wait for these countries to develop their economy, then start to suffer from non-communicable diseases,” UN World Health Organization (WHO) Coordinator of Health Promotion Gauden Galea told a news briefing in New York. “We are talking about countries and populations that are already dying at much higher rates and much earlier than people do in the richer economies.”

The Director of the Population Division in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), Hania Zlotnik, noted the irony that the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases in developing countries was the result of success in combating communicable diseases.

The consequent ageing of the population means that “people do not die early in life, they die much later in life and it is more likely that then they will die of a non-communicable disease,” she said.

Dr. Galea noted that four chronic diseases – cardiovascular, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory illness – are responsible for 60 per cent of the world’s deaths “and 80 per cent of these deaths are happening in the poorest populations of the world.

“As you look at the plot of mortality versus GDP (gross domestic product) you will see that already the poorest countries of the world suffer from higher burdens of non-communicable diseases than the richer countries of the world,” he added. “We are making a point that non-communicable diseases are an issue of development…

“There should not be global development initiatives that continue to ignore non-communicable diseases as if they do not exist in countries of sub-Saharan Africa and populations who are poor,” he said, stressing that governments have to recognize the social determinants and behavioural issues, such as smoking, unhealthy diets, alcohol and lack of physical activity as people urbanize.

Governments must address these risks and provide the services that people are being denied because of the neglect of non-communicable diseases, he concluded.

In February, WHO’s Director-General Margaret Chan told more than 100 key stakeholders at the first Global Forum of the Non-communicable Disease Network (NCDnet) in Geneva that many developing countries have reached the point where affluent countries were some decades ago.

“Diseases once associated with abundance are now heavily concentrated in poor and disadvantaged groups. Developing countries have the greatest vulnerability and the least resilience,” she said.

Non-communicable diseases currently account for 35 million deaths annually worldwide out of 58.7 million, the majority of them in low and middle-income countries (28.1 million). In developing countries alone, an estimated 8 million such deaths per year are premature, that is below 60 years of age, and could potentially be prevented.

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