The process of urbanization and modernization has begun to take a heavy toll on the health of developing countries, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO says these countries are facing an epidemic of non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular diseases and cancers. In an effort to counter this growing trend, WHO is advocating the need for more physical activity. That will be the focus of World Health Day this coming Sunday.
For decades, developing countries such as India and Bangladesh have battled communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, and polio.
Now they confront a new problem, a huge rise in the incidence of diseases associated with modern lifestyles. WHO's India Representative, Robert Kim-Farley says the developing world's overcrowded cities are getting into the same cycle that industrialized countries witnessed some decades ago, sedentary lifestyles, excess food consumption, and high tobacco use.
"Really,it's a matter of social change, as it is also in the developed world, the way people work, the way people eat and the way people entertain themselves," he said. "For example in India we see children watching cricket on TV as compared to actually going out on the field and playing cricket."
The new life patterns are taking their toll as the incidence of heart diseases and cancers rise. Health officials say, in the last decade more than three-quarters of global deaths due to non-communicable diseases occurred in low and middle income countries.
K. Srinath Reddy from the All India Institute of Medicine Sciences says the number of such deaths will rise dramatically in the next 20 years in countries like India if present trends continue. He says the concern is not just the growing number of deaths, but the age group in which they will occur.
"Most of these lives will be lost in the age of 30 - 69 years, which will be our most productive years of life," he said. "They will devastate the families who are dependent on the breadwinners, they will also be detrimental to development of the nation as a whole."
Health officials say it is not just the middle and upper classes which are affected by the lifestyle diseases. Urban slum dwellers are also becoming victims.
"All countries who have experienced the epidemic start with urban affluent sections, who have the disposable incomes to experiment with new lifestyles," Mr. Reddy said. "But as these mediators of risk become mass produced, whether it is tobacco which becomes widely distributed, mechanized transport, or fatty foods in production and distribution chains across supermarkets, we find that this becomes a mass epidemic."
According to WHO, it is simple and inexpensive to counter the increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases. More physical activity, and more balanced diets can solve a large part of the problem. Mr. Farley says he would like to see schools spread awareness, and governments provide a supportive environment in crowded cities.
"We have to make sure that we also engineer, if you will, our environments so that we have healthy cities, that have places for people to walk, parks, we have places set aside for cycling, cycling lanes, that protect people for cycling so you can increase the number of people cycling, we have to make sure that we have fields for our children to play," Mr. Farley said.
WHO gets its message out Sunday by organizing a series of walks by schoolchildren, public and health officials across several countries.