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WHO Calls for Action to Stop Chronic Diseases

The World Health Organization says 17 million people die prematurely every year from chronic diseases, the leading cause of death. In a new report, the World Health Organization proposes a plan of global action to prevent chronic disease which, it says, could save the lives of 36 million people who would otherwise be dead by 2015.

The World Health Organization says millions of people are dying prematurely and suffering needlessly from heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. It says these diseases are preventable and the global epidemic of chronic disease can be stopped. It says the vast majority of cases are caused by three preventable risk factors - unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use.

The Director of WHO's Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion, Robert Beaglehole, says myths surrounding chronic diseases hamper action to stop them. For example, he says one myth claims chronic diseases affect only wealthy men in wealthy countries. But he says evidence shows 80 percent of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries and half of them among women.

"At least 50 percent of adults over the age of 30 in some sub-Saharan African countries are already overweight," he noted. "Blood pressure levels in sub-Saharan Africa are among the highest levels in the world. And, cholesterol levels which is also an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease are common everywhere except in the very, very poorest famine-hit countries. We are not talking about the Nigers of this world or the Malawis of this world."

The World Health Organization hopes countries around the world will take notice and do something about chronic diseases once they realize what they cost.

This report estimates during the next 10 years China will suffer accumulated losses of $558 billion as a result of heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Russia will suffer losses of more than $300 billion and India $236 billion.

Dr. Beaglehole calls this staggering. He says countries will save billions of dollars if they promote programs to save millions of lives.

"And that is why we propose a goal for preventing ... 36 million deaths from chronic diseases between now and the year 2015 and that is achievable if we reduce chronic disease death rates by two percent a year … a rate of decline which has been far exceeded, far exceeded most notably and most recently in Poland," added Dr. Beaglehole.

Dr. Beaglehole says in Poland, the death rates in young adults declined by 10 percent a year in the 1990's and in older people by six percent a year. He says the government achieved this at very low cost by making fruit and vegetables available and by removing subsidies on dairy products, particularly butter. As these products became more expensive, he says the government lowered prices on healthier oils.

The WHO report cites other inexpensive and cost-effective measures that can lead to better health. These include reducing salt in processed foods, improving school meals, and taxing tobacco products.