The National Institutes of Health, America's federally-funded medical research organization, is spearheading efforts to establish chronic disease centers in 11 developing countries, where illnesses such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease have become bigger killers than infectious disease.
Chronic, lifestyle-related diseases caused by excessive fast-food consumption and lack of exercise now account for an estimated 60 percent of deaths in developing countries. That is a public health toll greater than that of parasitic diseases, which are also a leading cause of illness and death in the poorest countries.
If nothing is done to stop the trend, experts say that by 2015, 41 million people around the world will succumb each year to conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, with half of the victims younger than 70 years of age.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is helping to establish chronic disease centers in 11 countries, including India, China, Guatemala, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia and at the U.S.-Mexico border. The centers' mission will be to educate people about chronic illnesses and to help treat patients.
Richard Smith, Director of the UnitedHealth Chronic Disease Initiative in London, which is partnering with the U.S. health institute, says there has been a steady increase in chronic illnesses in developing countries as people move to cities and adopt Western lifestyles.
"And now, these diseases are far and away the biggest killers in all countries nearly, apart from sub-Saharan Africa," said Richard Smith. "And even soon in sub-Saharan Africa, they will be the major killers."
Smith says the World Health Organization has attempted to coordinate a response to the problems of chronic illnesses. But, he says, most of the money earmarked by donor countries for chronic disease programs has gone toward fighting infectious disease.
"But we need to begin to respond to the problem of chronic disease," he said. "And really this collaboration that we have with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is really one of the first programs where serious amounts of resources have been put into beginning to develop programs to try and at the very least slow down this pandemic and preferably begin to turn it around."
In addition to developing education and treatment programs, Smith says the new centers will conduct clinical trials of drugs to treat chronic illness.
Elizabeth Nabel, Director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, says the centers are being established at hospitals, academic centers and universities.
"They will be developing surveillance and prevention measures to monitor chronic disease situations in their countries," said Elizabeth Nabel. "So it is most appropriate as they develop these methods to work closely with the ministry of health in their country to develop public health measures."
The U.S. National Institutes of Health is providing $26 million in start-up money for the five year program, which was announced this week in the medical journal The Lancet.