News / Health

UN: Cancers, Diabetes, Heart & Lung Disease Biggest Killers

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (file photo)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (file photo)
Margaret Besheer

The U.N. General Assembly has convened a high-level meeting to discuss the world’s biggest killer - non-communicable diseases. Leaders met Monday to discuss how governments can curb the 36 million deaths each year from preventable and treatable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, lung and heart disease.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the two day session with this warning:

“The prognosis is grim," said Ban Ki-moon. "According to the World Health Organization, deaths from NCDs (non-communicable diseases) will increase by 17 percent in the next decade. In Africa, that number will jump by 24 percent. These statistics are alarming - but we know how to drive them down.”

He said the keys to lowering death rates are simple and include increasing exercise, improving nutrition and expanding screening for these diseases.

The secretary-general also urged industry to act responsibly.

“I especially call on corporations that profit from selling processed foods to children to act with the utmost integrity," he said. "I refer not only to food manufacturers, but also the media, marketing and advertising companies that play central roles in these enterprises. Those who profit from alcohol sales have to do their part to promote moderation in alcohol consumption. And we can all work to end tobacco use.”

World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan told the meeting that processed foods which are high in salt, trans fats and sugar have become the new staple food around the world. She said they are readily available and heavily marketed, and for a growing number of people they are the cheapest way to fill hungry stomachs.

But she warned that this trend has led to a disturbing expansion of the world’s waistline - a factor that has contributed to the rise of non-communicable diseases.

“Root causes of these diseases are not being addressed and widespread obesity is the tell tale signal," said Chan. "Worldwide obesity rates have almost doubled since 1980. This is a world in which more than 40 million pre-school children are obese or overweight. This is a world where more than 50 percent of the adult population in some countries is obese or overweight. Obesity is a signal that something is terribly wrong in the policy environment.”

The World Health Organization says that nearly 80 percent of cancers, diabetes, heart and lung disease occur in low and middle income countries. These illnesses also have a debilitating socio-economic effect because when a large percentage of the workforce is sick or dies during their productive years, national economies lose billions of dollars in output and millions of families are pushed into poverty, threatening development.

The long-term financial effect could also be devastating. Margaret Chan warned that a recent World Economic Forum and Harvard University study estimates that over the next 20 years non-communicable diseases could cost the global economy more than $30 trillion.

In a declaration adopted by the 193-member General Assembly, the body recognizes the scope of the problem and calls for urgent action. It says prevention must be the cornerstone of the response and urges governments to strengthen their national polices and health systems to meet the challenge. Among the recommendations are promoting increased access to cost-effective vaccinations and disease screening programs to aid prevention and early detection.

This is only the second time the U.N. General Assembly has taken up a health issue. The first was HIV/AIDS - for which there is no known cure. In the decade since, there has been huge progress on preventing and treating the virus around the world.

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