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UN: Chronic, Noncommunicable Disease is Leading Killer

The World Health Organization has released its second major report in six months on the growing worldwide threat from noncommunicable diseases, especially the five biggest killers: cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung disease and diabetes.

Coming on the eve of next week's international conference on chronic diseases at the United Nations in New York, the new report provides detailed country-by-country guidelines for preventing and treating these debilitating and deadly illnesses.

The WHO report says cancer alone kills 7.6 million people every year, more than the number who die from HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

While it is the communicable, infectious diseases that get most of the attention in developing countries, the WHO report notes that non-infectious, chronic diseases are the leading cause of deaths worldwide.

Ala Alwan, the Assistant Director-General for noncommunicable diseases at WHO, is one of the authors of the report.

"Out of 58 million deaths occurring in the world every year, we have 35 millions caused by noncommunicable diseases; heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers and chronic lung diseases which represent 60 percent of all global deaths," said Alwan. "And out of this, we have at least nine million people who are actually dying because of noncommunicable disease before the age of 60 years."

According to the WHO report, the leading contributors to chronic disease are high blood pressure, high blood glucose, tobacco use, physical inactivity, and obesity.

The billions of dollars being spent to treat these chronic illnesses are pushing millions of people in the developing world into poverty.

David Bloom, at the Harvard University School of Public Health, says the human and economic burden of noncommunicable diseases is immense.

"We are estimating [a cost of] newly diagnosed cancer cases of more than $300 billion in the year 2010. That's a global cost. We are estimating the annual global cost of illness from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on the order of $400 billion in 2010," added Bloom.

Dr. James Hospedales, a WHO expert on chronic disease, says the problem is much more widespread than many people know - not just in big countries like the United States, India and China - but in smaller countries such as Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados. In those smaller nations, the public health costs of treating hypertension and diabetes have climbed to between five and eight percent of their gross domestic products.

"It's not sustainable," Hospedales added. "It will crush the health services in many countries if this continues. We cannot wait until we have dealt with HIV, dealt with malaria. Now, it's upon us.

Hospedales says 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 ten years by simple measures - reducing the level of salt by 15 to 20 percent, reducing the [use] of tobacco and increasing the number of people who are at risk of a heart attack and stroke to be on simple preventive treatment," Hospedales noted. "Those three measures can save about 30 million lives in the next 10 years."

At the UN summit, world leaders hope to raise public awareness of the devastation that noncommunicable diseases have been causing across both developed and developing countries, and to discuss the best ways to reverse the rising death rates from these diseases.