Press Conference by World Health Organization Assistant Director-General on Non-communicable Diseases

15 September 2011

Press Conference by World Health Organization Assistant Director-General on Non-communicable Diseases

15 September 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by World Health Organization Assistant Director-General


on Non-communicable Diseases


The General Assembly will convene a landmark meeting next week to energize the global community’s strategy to tackle deadly non-communicable diseases — including heart disease, the world’s number one killer — which not only caused huge numbers of premature and preventable deaths, but also undermined socio-economic development, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official said at Headquarters today.

“This is a very important milestone where disease will be addressed as a health and a development issue, only the second time the United Nations has done so,” said Dr. Ala Alwan, Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health at a press conference ahead of the two-day high-level meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, which opens on Monday 19 September.  Cardiovascular ailments, cancers, respiratory diseases and diabetes accounted for an annual 63 per cent of deaths the world over — some 36 million people, he added.

Underscoring the need for concerted action and a coordinated global response on both the health and development fronts, he continued, the Assembly had decided to convene at the ministerial level to sound the alarm, as it had done only once before in holding its first summit-level meeting on HIV/AIDS.  Thus far, Some 34 Heads of State and 50 health and development ministers were scheduled to participate in next week’s events, expected to include a series of plenary meetings and round-table discussions.  Member States were expected to adopt a “strong, clear” political declaration at the end of the meeting, he said.

Pointing out that chronic diseases were driven by four main risk factors — tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity — Dr. Alwan said that of the millions killed who succumbed to them each year, one quarter were under the age of 60, cut down in the prime of their lives and leaving their communities bereft of much-needed productive capacity.  Worse, some 80 per cent of all deaths from smoking, poor diet and high blood pressure occurred in the developing world, which was already home to nine out of 10 people around the world who died before the age of 60.

Given those stark statistics, the Assembly’s Meeting would provide an opportunity to set the global agenda on how to combat the deadly but preventable diseases, he said.  Delegations were expected to base their strategies on, and recommit to, implementation of WHO’s Global Strategy and Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases, the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, and the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

Asked about the concrete actions that Member States might take, he replied that every Member State should undertake to monitor and reduce the risk factors for non-communicable diseases; and provide health care while promoting access to essential health interventions, especially for those with cancer and chronic lung diseases.  That would not be a job for health sectors alone, he said, stressing that media outlets, urban planning offices and financial sectors must be involved.

Responding to other questions, Dr. Alwan said the dietary guidelines in the Global Strategy on Diet and Physical Activity very clearly recommended reducing salt content, saturated fats and sugar intake.  That was critical because, while obesity was emerging as a major global trend seen mainly in middle- and high-income countries, it was spreading to the developing world.  Indeed, non-communicable diseases amounted to a “double burden” for poor countries as they struggled to find ways to cope with the health and economic impacts of both under-nutrition and obesity.

To another query, he said that, while next week’s meeting would focus on the chronic diseases responsible for the majority of global deaths and shared risk factors, WHO was applying targeted initiatives to address other such diseases, including mental health disorders.  That was important because some 80 per cent of people with mental disorders lacked access to effective treatment services, he said, adding that the issue would be mentioned in the meeting’s final political declaration.

He went on to say that the outcome document would also place a great deal of emphasis on chronic disease and gender, especially since breast and cervical cancer were increasingly prevalent in developing countries.  Moreover, with excessive weight and high blood pressure rising among women, the declaration would call for improving their access to health services, among other things.

Another important call would be for increased official development assistance (ODA) to address chronic diseases, he said, pointing out that less than 3 per cent of that aid currently went to technical support for that task.  The declaration would also encourage Member States to work out strategies to make tackling chronic disease a major plank of the development agenda, including through implementation of innovative financing — such as a tax on tobacco — to provide the funds required to expand health-care coverage.

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