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WHO: Millions Die Prematurely From Non-Communicable Diseases

FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said 16 million people under the age of 70 are dying prematurely every year from non-communicable diseases (NCDs). A new report is calling for action to reduce these largely preventable deaths.

Non-communicable diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for 63 percent of all yearly deaths. WHO reports millions of people are dying prematurely from four major types of illnesses - heart and lung diseases, stroke, cancer and diabetes.

WHO cites tobacco use, the harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity as the four major risk factors and notes embracing healthier life styles can significantly reduce these premature deaths.

The lead author of the report, Shanthi Mendis, is WHO’s coordinator for chronic diseases prevention and management. She called non-communicable diseases a slow motion public health disaster.

“We are losing 16 million people every year in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, not in their 80s and 90s. And, we are losing 38 million from NCDs overall every year... Out of the 16 million people who die under the age of 70, who are in their productive years, 82 percent are in low and middle income countries, which do not have the capacity to really address them,” said Mendis.

In 2013, the World Health Assembly approved a "global action plan" that aims to reduce the number of premature deaths from non-communicable diseases by one quarter by 2025. The plan includes nine voluntary global targets to tackle key risk factors.

The report describes inroads being made by several countries that are implementing some of these strategies. For example, it notes smoking rates in Turkey have declined by 13 percent since the government increased the size of health warnings on tobacco products and increased taxes.

While such progress is encouraging, WHO finds most countries are not on track to meet the 2025 goal.

Dr. Mendis said many lives could be saved if countries implement a few low-cost strategies. These include a ban on all forms of tobacco advertising, replacing trans fats with polyunsaturated fats, restricting or banning alcohol advertising, and promoting healthy diets and physical activity.

She told VOA another serious problem that must be tackled is obesity in young children. She said 42 million children under age five are overweight and five million are obese. She called this frightening because behaviors that are learned at a very young age are set for life.

“Obesity contributes to so many core morbidities... If you are obese, you are more prone to develop high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, arthritic complaints [and] cancer, among other diseases. So, you are set to develop chronic diseases in later life... What is really again alarming is in the last couple of years, the rising obesity is highest in death in some African countries. The actual levels may be low now, but the rising trend is remarkable in those countries,” said Mendis.

The World Health Organization said a small investment equal to one to three dollars per person, per year could dramatically reduce illness and death from NCDs. Globally, this amounts to $11.2 billion a year.

That may sound like a lot until it is compared with the cost of doing “business as usual” in low- and middle-income countries. The WHO estimates from 2011 to 2025, cumulative economic losses in those countries due to NCDs will amount to $7 trillion.