Chronic, non-communicable diseases such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are on the rise and are taking a significant toll on the economies of low- and middle-income countries. This is according to a new report from the World Health Organization.
The WHO's first Global Status Report on what it calls "the leading killer today" says that in 2008, more than 63 percent of those who died worldwide - more than 36 million people - were killed by non-communicable diseases. And it says 80 percent of those deaths were reported in developing countries.
The WHO says contagious afflictions - such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis - are not the ones that pose the greatest global threat to public health. Instead, it says, the major threat comes from non-communicable diseases, or NCDs - which are often the result of poor diet and lifestyle choices, environmental influence or genetics.
In many parts of the world, the numbers of NCD cases are soaring, and abuse of tobacco and alcohol have only compounded the problem.
The WHO says the billions of dollars being spent, year after year - on treating chronic illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes - are pushing millions of people in the developing world below the poverty line.
Margaret Chan, WHO's director-general, said greater attention must be paid to the link between these killer diseases and the economic well-being of low- and middle-income countries.
"For some countries it is no exaggeration to describe the situation as an impending disaster," said Chan. "I mean a disaster for health, society and national economies. The challenge of combating non communicable diseases has some unprecedented dimensions."
Experts say changing demographics are at the root of the NCD problem. In many developing countries, the populations are growing quickly, ageing and also adopting more urban lifestyles.
Dr. James Hospedales, an expert on chronic diseases, said the problem of NCDs is much more widespread than many people realize. He said they are a major problem in big countries like the United States, India, China, and in nations across Latin America and the Mediterranean region.
While infectious diseases get most of the attention in Africa, the WHO estimates that chronic diseases will surpass them as the leading cause of death in many African nations by 2020.
Hospedales notes that in smaller countries such as Trinidad and Tobago or Barbados, the public health costs of treating hypertension and diabetes have climbed to between five and eight percent of those nations' gross domestic product:
"It’s not sustainable. It will crush the health services in many countries if this continues. We cannot wait until we have dealt with HIV, dealt with malaria. No, it’s upon us. As a matter of fact, one of the major contributors to tuberculosis going up in several countries is because diabetes is going up and obesity [too], so there is a link between diabetes and TB," said Hospedales.
Hospedales said leaders of some middle- and low-income countries are beginning to realize that national health policies must be focused more sharply on prevention. He said these leaders understand that even simple diet and lifestyle changes can significantly lower risk factors for stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and bronchitis.
"We estimate in WHO that over 30 million lives can be saved in the next 10 years by simple measures - reducing the level of salt by 15 to 20 percent, reducing the amount of tobacco, and increasing the number of people who are at risk of a heart attack and stroke to be on simple preventive treatment. Those three measures can save about 30 million lives in next 10 years."
WHO officials say the U.N. agency's first Global Status Report on Non-Communicable Diseases, with its country-by-country assessments of the NCD epidemic, aims to educate policy makers, industry and civil society leaders, and the general public about the need for a coordinated response to these public health threats.
The U.N. General Assembly will convene its first-ever high-level meeting on the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases in New York this September.