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Leading NGOs Call for Action Against Chronic Diseases

Most people think diseases such as such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease are problems that primarily affect wealthy countries. It's true that in developing countries, infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria create a tremendous burden on society. But chronic diseases also create suffering for many people in both wealthy and low-income countries.

Recently, several disease advocacy organizations went to the World Health Organization to ask that more attention be paid to these diseases and their effects on the developing world.

Martin Silink heads the International Diabetes Federation. He says the number of people around the world with conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer is growing rapidly.

"It's thought now - and the estimates are really very good - that 6 percent of the adult population of the world has this form of diabetes, type 2 diabetes," Silink says. "And it's growing at the rate of 7 million more each year."

As people start to live longer and more prosperous lives, they are more prone to chronic diseases. Silink says this is becoming evident as more people migrate to cities. Since 2007, more people in the world are living in cities than in rural areas.

"This migration from the country to the cities is still occurring," he says. "There is very good information that shows that if you move from a rural, country location to the city, then you double your risk for diabetes. If the city is more than a million people in size, you double it again. And if it is a mega-city of more than 10 million, you double your risk of diabetes again."

But Silink says organizations like the World Health Organization and large donors tend to focus exclusively on communicable diseases. They don't fund research or treatment for chronic diseases. He says it's a mistake, and is unnecessary.

"It turns out that there is only about a list of 10 very simple drugs that are all out of patent, and they can be manufactured very, very cheaply," Silink says. "And all it needs is for a political commitment to make these cheap drugs available to this enormous burden of non-communicable diseases in the developing world."

Silink and other health care leaders went to Geneva this past week to ask the World Health Assembly at the World Health Organization to increase funding and attention to chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cancer.

"You cannot divide a person into a communicable and not communicable," Silink says. "It turns out that this person with tuberculosis may well have diabetes. The person with HIV/AIDS will develop heart disease."

Silink says donors and international organizations need to focus more on strengthening health systems, not just providing funds for the eradication of one disease or another.

Silink made his presentation to the World Health Organization in Geneva this past week, along with the heads of the World Heart Federation and the International Union Against Cancer.