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Experts Urge Global Action Against Chronic Diseases

  • Art Chimes

A baby receives an injection in a malaria vaccine trial in the Kenya coastal town of Kilifi.

A baby receives an injection in a malaria vaccine trial in the Kenya coastal town of Kilifi.

Plan projected to save 36 million lives over 10 years

Infectious diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis get a lot of attention worldwide. But another group of illnesses is even more deadly. Now, an international group of health experts says the time has come to take concerted action against non-communicable diseases.

The diseases include heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. Together, these non-communicable or chronic diseases represent a major cause of death, and they aren't just diseases of wealthy, industrialized countries.

"And if we look worldwide, these non-communicable diseases account for about two-thirds of deaths overall.

"About four-fifths of these deaths are in low-income countries, and they affect about a third of people under the age of 60," said Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

McKee is one of 44 co-authors of a paper describing the challenge of non-communicable diseases. Writing online in The Lancet, they set out a program to reduce the death toll by two percent a year.

As many as 36 million lives could be saved over the course of a decade, McKee says, if priority is given to five major public health goals, "tobacco control, reduction of salt in the diet, more generally improving diets and physical activity, reducing hazardous alcohol consumption, and insuring that people have access to essential drugs and to technologies."

Those goals are challenging, and Martin McKee says it will require committed leadership.

"If you look at the remarkable achievements that have been made in a number of industrialized countries in recent years, then it becomes clear that changes can happen, and changes can happen relatively quickly. So I would say changing the mindset to recognize what is possible to be done."

The action plan for non-communicable diseases comes ahead of a high-level United Nations meeting set for September to focus on the issue.