Press Conference by Population Division on Burden of Non-communicable Disease on Development

13 April 2010

Press Conference by Population Division on Burden of Non-communicable Disease on Development

13 April 2010
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Population Division on Burden


of Non-communicable Disease on Development


With chronic conditions such as heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes responsible for 60 per cent of all annual deaths worldwide, tackling the global burden of such non-communicable diseases had become one of the major challenges for development in the twenty-first century, a senior World Health Organization official said today.

Urging a “whole-of-Government” and “whole of society” approach to combat non-communicable diseases, Gauden Galea, WHO’s Coordinator of Health Promotion, told a Headquarters press conference that prevention throughout life, supported by broad, inclusive policies that extended beyond the health sphere, was effective and should be regarded as an investment in health and sustainable development, two critical target areas of the Millennium Development Goals.

He said that while the industrialized world was struggling to deal with the effects of cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, low- and middle-income countries were the worst affected by these diseases, which were largely preventable by modifying four common risk factors:  tobacco use; unhealthy diet; physical inactivity; and harmful use of alcohol.

Mr. Galea was joined at the press conference by Hania Zlotnik, Director, Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and Edward Bos, Lead Population Specialist for the World Bank.  The Officials were speaking to reporters in connection with the Commission on Population and Development, which opened its forty-third session yesterday under the theme of “Health, morbidity, mortality and development”.

“Global development initiatives should not ignore non-communicable diseases and their effects on socio-economic conditions” in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia, Mr. Galea continued, citing the “intimate links” between chronic illnesses and well-known infectious disease, such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.  For example, he said, a recent study had shown that a 10 per cent reduction in non-communicable diseases in low-income economies could lead to a reduction in tuberculosis mortality that was equivalent to about 10 years of economic growth.

With that in mind, he said it was well known that a significant percentage of tuberculosis cases worldwide were attributable to HIV infection.  Yet, it was now becoming clear that a nearly equal number of cases were attributable to active smoking and, increasingly, diabetes.  So, human health systems weakened by smoking, indoor air pollution or other prime triggers for chronic diseases increasingly became targets for infection.  “The diseases are happening together and if we don’t address them together we will find we will not be able to achieve the Millennium development Goals [in this area],” he said.   

On the economic fallout of tackling non-communicable diseases, he said many chronic diseases, especially cancer, required very expensive treatment and private care.  For instance, it had been estimated that in India, there was a much greater likelihood that families treating non-communicable diseases would be exposed to “catastrophic costs” and the risks of possible impoverishment.

Mr. Galea said that Governments must recognize that they are responsible for creating an environment that promoted healthy behaviour.  That was why the WHO had called for “whole of society” and “whole-of-Government” policy responses -- responses which addressed social determinates.  People needed access to the health services to address, among other things, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, unhealthy diets and excessive alcohol consumption.

In that regard, he drew attention to the WHO’s Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, endorsed at the 61st World Health Assembly in 2008, which was a major step towards meeting those challenges.  The Plan, to be implemented through 2013, outlined a range of development initiatives, policy approaches, as well as research monitoring and evaluation that was needed to monitor progress.

For his part, Mr. Bos noted the irony that the uptick in chronic diseases was largely due to the success the international community had achieved in combating infections diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis.  Indeed, in the past, those illnesses would have killed many adults before they reached advanced age and many children before they reached the age of five.  Mortality and disease also changed with development and lifestyle changes.  Yet, the major determinant of non-communicable diseases was ageing.  People in developing countries were now “ageing into” the range where they could be affected by non-communicable diseases, he said.

As the trend in combating those diseases had begun to shift, the World Bank would focus its efforts more on bolstering health systems -- financing, insurance mechanisms, strengthening human resources, health sector regulation and governance -- than on addressing the effects of individual diseases.  He also said the Bank agreed with the call for broad, inclusive strategies, as many risk factors were not within the health sector, but touched on wider economic issues.  For example, he said that one of the best ways to curb tobacco use was by raising taxes on cigarettes, so, in the effort to boost capabilities in that area, the Bank targeted ministries of finance, rather than health ministries.

Rounding out the press conference, Ms. Zlotnik also noted that the increased prevalence of non-communicable diseases was due to ageing populations and success in combating infectious diseases.  During its week-long session, the Commission planned to discuss cases of countries with large chronic disease burdens.  Help for such countries was vital if they were to attain the Millennium Goals for reducing child mortality, reducing HIV infections, and reducing maternal mortality and improving maternal health.  Such factors not only impacted on health, but the longevity and economy of all nations.

Finally, she said that during the Commission’s discussions thus far, several middle income countries had requesting a United Nations-backed summit on tackling non-communicable diseases.  The involvement of the United Nations, with its breadth of relevant agencies and global reach, was crucial, because of the multifaceted approaches required to make headway against non-communicable diseases.  The Organization could coordinate worldwide action in areas beyond overburdened national health systems, including in education, trade and commerce, and food labelling, among other initiatives, she added.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.