Media Critical to Public Health Campaign against Non-Communicable Diseases Because ‘So Many Myths’ Need to Be Corrected, Says Deputy Secretary-General at Forum

20 June 2011

Media Critical to Public Health Campaign against Non-Communicable Diseases Because ‘So Many Myths’ Need to Be Corrected, Says Deputy Secretary-General at Forum

20 June 2011
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Media Critical to Public Health Campaign against Non-Communicable Diseases Because


‘So Many Myths’ Need to Be Corrected, Says Deputy Secretary-General at Forum


Following are the remarks by UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro to a media forum on non-communicable diseases, in New York, 20 June:

Thank you, Dr. [John] Seffrin [CEO of the American Cancer Society] for your introduction.  I would like to express my tremendous gratitude to the American Cancer Society for all your work to improve public health.  And I thank you for this chance to speak to such an important group.

The media is critical to any public health campaign.  This is especially true for non-communicable diseases.  Because there are so many myths that need to be corrected.  And there are, at times, forces behind those myths trying to hide the truth.

This is the reality we have to face if we are going to tackle this problem.  We have to be aware of the potential roadblocks.  And we need the media to keep everyone honest.

Unlike sicknesses caused by a mosquito, a virus or an infection, non-communicable diseases are linked to factors like food, tobacco, environmental pollution and a lack of exercise.  These may sound largely like matters of individual habit.  After all, people can decide for themselves whether they smoke or drink too much, or whether they fail to get exercise or overeat.

Changing individual habits is essential, yes.  A major part of our campaign will be to promote exercise, reduce excessive consumption of alcohol and cut the use of tobacco products.  But this is not only a campaign for individuals.  Governments can take decisions that reward and encourage healthy habits.  Equally, they can raise the financial cost of unhealthy habits.

Governments can also strengthen health care for people with non-communicable diseases.  They can fund research.  Academics and scientists can foster progress.

And the private sector can make sure that while they pursue profits, they also protect health.  Companies can adjust the formulas of their foods to include better ingredients and ban those that are known to be harmful, like transfats.  Companies can also act responsibly when marketing products to children.  And all of us can take measures to keep harmful chemicals out of our environment.

Raising awareness is a simple and economical way to prevent non-communicable diseases.  Two thirds of all new cases of non-communicable diseases can be prevented by addressing the four main risk factors: tobacco use, unhealthy diets, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol consumption.  The private sector is gearing up to help and Governments are on board.  But their reach is nothing compared with the media.

At their best, journalists expose lies and offer the objective truth.  Articles and television programmes can promote exercise, responsible alcohol consumption and healthy eating.  They can encourage people to go for screening and take other preventive measures.  Ultimately, you in the media can help save lives.

Cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes are often mistakenly viewed as “diseases of affluence”.  After all — the thinking goes — if someone has plenty of money they will buy rich foods, alcoholic drinks and tobacco products.  And they will have plenty of leisure, not physical work.  Certainly this describes some cases, but not the vast majority.  Poor countries suffer 80 per cent of the non-communicable diseases’ death toll.  Poor mothers who lack good nutrition in pregnancy are more likely to give birth to babies vulnerable to non-communicable diseases later in life.

Smoking rates are highest among men in lower-middle-income countries.  Those countries also suffer two thirds of all cancer deaths.  Africa has the highest rate of people living with raised blood pressure.  Those countries are the least able to provide preventive screening.  That leads to late diagnosis, which in turn means more expensive treatment — and much poorer prognosis.

The economic costs of non-communicable diseases are astronomical.  But let us put aside those costs for a moment, even though they are catastrophic for too many families.  Let us think instead of someone we know who has suffered from one of these illnesses, maybe even ourselves.  There is no price tag on the anxiety and pain.  There is no cost-benefit analysis that can sufficiently describe the suffering of family and friends.  There is no calculation to determine what someone might have contributed to our world if only they had never fallen ill.

Many of us are here today because we have been directly or indirectly affected by cancer, diabetes, heart disease or chronic respiratory illness.  We know how debilitating and deadly non-communicable diseases can be — and that is why we are moved to act.  Now our challenge is to spread this message.

There is good news.  We know how to prevent non-communicable diseases.  We have effective treatments.  And we are building the political will to leverage this knowledge into progress.  That is why your work is so important in the lead-up to September’s high-level meeting here at the United Nations, which we hope will be a landmark event.  At today’s forum, you will benefit from seasoned experts who have devoted their careers to understanding and addressing non-communicable diseases.  We at the United Nations are strongly committed to doing everything we can to help you.

In the past, we have provided journalists with footage, expert interviews and statistics on public health threats like AIDS and malaria.  Now that we are breaking news on non-communicable diseases, we are ready to help you tell this story.  NCDs may be non-communicable diseases, but we need communications to address them.

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