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WHO Calls for Action on Non-Communicable Diseases

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan (file photo).

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan (file photo).

The director-general of the World Health Organization says non-communicable diseases are among the most pressing public-health challenges of the future.

Obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, cancers and other chronic diseases are growing globally. Once considered as diseases of the wealthy, they increasingly are threatening the lives of people in poor and middle-income countries.

In an opening speech to the annual WHO Executive Board meeting, Director-General Margaret Chan presented an overview of the global health situation and called for action on a number of important issues.

Dr. Chan urged the 34-member board to tackle the root causes of non-communicable diseases. She says the impact of non-communicable diseases comes in waves, and much of the developing world now is experiencing the first wave of chronic, debilitating, often fatal illnesses.

"This is marked by growing numbers of people with raised blood pressure, raised cholesterol and the early stages of diabetes," she said. "The growing prevalence of obesity and overweight, seen nearly everywhere, is the warning signal that big trouble is on its way. The second wave, which is yet to come, will be much more horrific."

For example, Chan notes more than half of the estimated 346 million people who suffer from diabetes are unaware of their disease status. Unfortunately, she says many of these people will not seek treatment until the disease has reached an advanced stage and they start to go blind or need a limb amputated. She says WHO is giving the highest priority toward the prevention of this tragic outcome.

Dr. Chan also listed a number of significant health accomplishments in the first decade of this century.

She notes the epidemics of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis have peaked and begun to decline. Malaria also is on the decline. She says young child mortality has dropped below 10 million deaths a year for the first time in nearly six decades, with great strides being made in sub-Saharan Africa. She says the number of maternal deaths worldwide has finally begun to go down.

The global eradication of polio also is reaching its endgame. Efforts to wipe this crippling disease off the face of the earth received a boost recently with the announcement that India, one of four endemic countries, has not had a case of polio in one year.

Dr. Chan says this is the time to intensify efforts. She says governments must not become complacent. They must stay the course.

"Should commitment falter, polio will come roaring back. Should our resolve waver, this will be the most expensive failure in the history of public health," she said.

WHO chief Chan expressed concern at the growing inequality in income levels and opportunities, especially among young people.

She cites a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which finds income inequality in wealthy nations has reached the worst levels seen in nearly 25 years. The report concludes that societies with the least inequality have the best health outcomes, regardless of how much they spend.

Good policies that promote equity, she says, have a better chance to improve health.