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UN Summit Planned on Noncommunicable Diseases

  • Joe DeCapua

Preparations are already underway for a U.N. summit in September of next year on preventing and controlling noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, heart and lung disease, diabetes and stroke.

Noncommunicable diseases – or NCDs – claim about 35 million lives every year. The diseases account for 60 percent of deaths in all age groups.

The good news is many of those deaths can be prevented. A Global Action Plan has already been drawn up and approved. But now resources and political will are needed to fully implement it. That’s where the U.N. high-level meeting comes in.

Ill effects

Dr. Ala Alwan, World Health Organization’s Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health, says besides the unnecessary loss of life, NCDs have broader effects as well.

“This has a negative impact on productivity. It has a negative impact on social economic development. There are also other reasons. They reduce family income because of illness, because of the disability they cause. They also reduce family income because of the increasing health care costs,” he says.

It’s what’s called “catastrophic expenditure” - health care costs so high that families are driven below the poverty line.

Alwan says, “These are diseases that more or less share the same risk factors. So they are caused by tobacco. They are caused by unhealthy diet. They are caused by physical inactivity. And they are also caused to a certain extent by the harmful use of alcohol. So these are the shared risk factors that cause cardiovascular disease, heart disease, stroke, a large number of cancers and also contribute to diabetes.”

Taking action

A global action plan on preventing and controlling noncommunicable diseases is ready to be implemented.

“There is a clear global vision, which was endorsed by 193 countries. These are the countries that are members of the World Health Assembly in the year 2000. And 8 years later, in 2008, the World Health Assembly endorsed an action plan to translate the global strategy to concrete action. So, it’s a 6 year action plan, which identifies exactly what countries should do to address these problems and what WHO should do and what the international partners should do,” he says.

Part of the plan calls for behavior change, such as quitting smoking, exercising and eating healthier. But countries need to have environments that promote that behavior, such as passing tough anti-smoking laws.

Implementation of the action plan is not a simple matter. And Alwan says the health sector cannot do it alone.

“These are problems that can only be reduced by involvement of the non-health sector. So, industry has to be involved - sectors like finance, trade, education, transportation. In order to reduce the risk factors you need to involve these non-health sectors,” Alwan says.

Many health-related NGOs are also involved in planning next year’s U.N. summit.

Good for the economy, too

The WHO assistant director-general the global action plan would bring economic, as well as health benefits.

“Think of the millions of millions of people with diabetes, with cancer, with heart disease, who require expensive treatment and expensive health care. So any significant difference in reducing the number of people requiring this kind of expensive health care will make a difference. But equally important is that fact that if you reduce the disability, if you reduce the morbidity, you will be able to reduce the number of people, who lose productivity,” he says.

Although the high-level U.N. summit won’t be held until next September, member states must soon submit a resolution to the General Assembly on the scope and goals of the summit.