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Emerging Economies, Emerging Diseases

Diabetes test checks sugar levels in blood. A rise in obesity is often accompanied by a rise in diabetes.
Diabetes test checks sugar levels in blood. A rise in obesity is often accompanied by a rise in diabetes.

Emerging economies such as China, India and South Africa are discovering there is a downside to prosperity. As incomes rise, health can decline. On Monday, the U.N. opens a high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases that usually have been associated with western nations.

In recent years, India and China have seen a growing middle class. But with greater affluence has come a surge in diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and cancer. South Africa is on a similar path. The United Nations will debate what can be done about these illnesses.

Project HOPE is calling on the U.N. to take strong action – not only on treatment – but prevention. The health-based NGO has programs in 35 countries on 5 continents, many of them dealing with non-communicable diseases or NCDs.

One of them – the HOPE Center – is located in Johannesburg, South Africa. Stefan Lawson, country director for Project HOPE, welcomes the U.N. meeting.

“It’s the first time that we’ve had non-communicable diseases put on such a high-level forum. The last time a specific disease was done at this sort of level was for HIV and AIDS. And so, being able to push for non-communicable diseases up at that ministerial level I think will do a lot of good,” he said.

What’s for dinner?

Lawson said a majority of South African men and women are now overweight.

“One of the results of prosperity is a change in lifestyle, which includes a change in diet. So, we see here in a shift to a more western diet – MacDonald’s, KFC, fast foods, more processed meat. Things like that that definitely have an impact on a person’s lifestyle,” he said.

Food prices have risen sharply in recent years, dealing a major blow to the poor. This has a direct effect on diet and health.

“Healthy food – fruits and vegetables, etc. – now becomes more difficult to purchase for someone who lives in a poor township environment. So, they’re forced to then buy cheaper, less healthy food,” he said.

Footing the bill

As diets change, he said, whether or not by choice, the overall health of a country can decline. That, he says, can place a great burden on budgets.

“South Africa had a well documented problem with HIV and TB. And that really put a strain on the public health system. And (it) has caused a real strain in just the volume of people that are going into the clinics now. So, if you add on top of that now more people going into the clinics with things like diabetes and hypertension related issues, it’s just going to increase the burden even more on an already over strained public health system,” he said.

He added higher health care costs can be a drag on South Africa’s economic growth.

Reaching out

The Hope Center project on the outskirts of Johannesburg provides services to those with non-communicable diseases. It’s a partnership with the local community, the South African government and donor Eli Lilly & Company. The services include a diabetes clinic with the latest diagnostic and treatment options.

The Hope Center offers a variety of health services
The Hope Center offers a variety of health services

The center also has created peer support groups to help people manage their disease and make healthier lifestyle changes. Government health workers are also being trained about NCDs to help raise general awareness.

“Teaching people about healthy meal options, teaching people about portion sizes, teaching people about how to cook their food in a healthier way. Then I think also the second part of that is being able to help people purchase those healthier food options. Because a lot of times some people know that an apple is healthier than a bag of chips, but a bag of chips costs a lot less than an apple,” said Lawson.

Lawson hopes the U.N. high-level meeting will issue a strong statement that non-communicable diseases are an emerging threat in the developing world.

In other countries, Project Hope said China has more than 300-million smokers and 30 percent of the population is overweight with 12 percent considered obese. In India, it says 50 million people have diabetes. It has clinics in both countries to help deal with the NCDs.