5 February 2010
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on CARICOM Non-communicable Diseases Initiative


Strong action against diabetes, cancers, heart disease and chronic lung ailments must be integrated into the global development agenda, panellists at a Headquarters press conference on non-communicable diseases said this afternoon.


“Non-communicable diseases are a development issue as much as a health issue,” said Donatus St. Aimee, Permanent Representative of Saint Lucia, said after a briefing to Member States on the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Initiative on Non-Communicable Diseases, co-organized by the World Health Organization (WHO).  He was accompanied by Ala Alwan, Assistant Director-General of WHO; Alafia Samuels, Epidemiologist at the University of the West Indies; and Deborah Malta, Coordinator of the Department of Non-Communicable Diseases in Brazil’s Ministry of Health.


Dr. Alwan said non-communicable diseases were responsible for 60 per cent of global deaths, and with diabetes and cancers on the rise, they were taking a heavy toll on household and national budgets, as well as productivity.  In many countries, the costs of diabetes treatment for one person could wipe out more than 50 per cent of household income.  Cancer was catastrophic, he added.


The panellists stressed that the diseases targeted -- which could cause strokes, renal failure and other deadly problems besides ravages of their own -- could all be mitigated through lifestyle changes, which, in turn, needed wide policy action to accomplish.  That was why coordinated efforts must be made by actors in all sectors, not only the health sphere.  Prevention depended on the regulation of harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol and processed food; the availability of healthy food; and a healthy environment, including space for exercise.


However, Dr. Alwan pointed out that, as opposed to communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, prevention and control of non-communicable chronic diseases had not been integrated into the world development agenda, including the Millennium Development Goals.  The panellists were therefore advocating for the adoption of a General Assembly resolution that would call for a world summit in the near future, in order to coordinate efforts throughout the entire United Nations system, alongside those of Governments and civil society.


Mr. St. Aimee noted that so far, all the problems leading to chronic illnesses had been dealt with on an individual basis.  An Assembly resolution could, for example, get the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) working better together to increase the availability of healthy foods.  Some agencies were already working on the problem, he said, citing planning by WHO and an upcoming FAO seminar.  “But what we are not seeing is a coming together of those various programmes,” along with the most efficient use of resources, he stressed.


Dr. Malta, recalling that she had presented Brazil’s initiatives to monitor, prevent and treat chronic non-communicable ailments at the briefing for Member States, said they included free distribution of medicines for diabetes and heart disease, and legislation requiring warnings on tobacco products and restricting advertising for them, as well as the posting the trans-fat content of foods.  Partnerships with civil society and cross-sectoral dialogue were crucial in confronting the problem, she said.


Ms. Samuels noted that in the Americas the Caribbean subregion was the hardest hit by non-communicable diseases.  In Trinidad and Tobago, for example, the rate of prevalence was 700 per cent that of Canada, with mortality rates just as far apart.  Part of the problem was that of the young people sat more than three hours a day playing video games and many drank alcohol and smoked tobacco.  Many of the necessary interventions lay outside the health sector, and the involvement of the agricultural, financial, educational and planning sectors was of critical importance.  Heads of Government must therefore intervene to address the risk factors of chronic diseases, she stressed.


Asked why action against chronic non-communicable diseases was not included in the Millennium Development Goals, panellists explained that the development targets emphasized leading causes of infant and maternal death.  In addition, development agencies did not yet realize the impact of non-communicable diseases on socio-economic advancement.


In response to questions about the economic effects of the illnesses, Mr. St. Aimee described the economic strains on his own family, saying his mother had died of diabetes, which had also debilitated his two sisters.  The same expenses would be devastating for a poorer family, he added.


Replying to other questions, he stressed that a large part of the problem was caused by land-use changes that had occurred over his lifetime, recalling that as a boy, he had walked to school, swum every day and eaten healthy fruits from the trees around him.  Today, residential and other kinds of buildings, in addition to the prevalence of cars and processed foods, had wiped out the very possibility of much of that kind of life.


Dr. Alwan warned against the notion that promoting awareness of a good lifestyle was the whole answer, because, for example, it was difficult to quit smoking when tobacco was everywhere at a comparatively low cost.  It was also difficult to eat well if healthy food was unavailable or too expensive.  That was why mitigating chronic illness was a policy issue beyond the health sector, he insisted.  It was crucial to the creation of a policy environment conducive to health.


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For information media • not an official record