Geneva, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Swine flu may be in the headlines, but non-communicable diseases (NCDs), especially in developing countries, were in the corridors and meeting rooms as the World Health Assembly, the global body of the World Health Organization (WHO), held its annual meeting in Geneva 17-22 May. NCDs are estimated to reduce gross domestic product by up to five percent in many low- and middle-income countries, where four out of five of the 35 million deaths a year from NCDs occur. A growing chorus of voices is arguing that these diseases should become part of the health package of the UN Millennium Development Goals which countries have signed a compact to meet by 2015.
The figures were put forward this week by three key international health groups who represent 730 member health care organizations which are calling for an “immediate and substantial increase in financing” for these diseases: the International Diabetes Federation, International Union Against Cancer and World Heart Federation.
Reliable numbers for NCDs are in fact difficult to come by, their experts say, because these diseases often accompany others and may not be fully recorded. “The evidence shows that the majority of NCDs can be prevented by addressing risk factors like unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use,” the groups noted in a press release. “Those that are non-preventable can be treated with essential medicines.”
The three would like to see these medicines made available to people in low- and middle-income countries, who often cannot afford or do not have access to them.
Despite evidence that NCDs are increasing rapidly in these countries, they are not yet a stated health priority on a global level, the organizations argue. “The big challenge is incorporating NCD surveillance into national health systems,” so accurate figures can be compiled, Dr Ala Alwan told a forum in Geneva jointly organized by the three groups. Alwan is the WHO’s deputy director-general for NCDs.
Prevention must be a key feature of any solution, believes Marie-Pierre Lloyd of the Seychelles Ministry of Health and Social Development, but that means taking an approach that embraces far more than health care. “The same groups tend to be high risk for all of these. They consume tobacco and don’t get exercise. Yet they can’t go for a walk after dinner because it’s not safe – so we also have to deal with security issues if we want to help them change their lifestyles.”
“We need to show how NCDs contribute to other diseases, to smoking and maternity health” problems that are already a UN-agreed priority, argued George Alleyne, chairman of the Caribbean Commission on Health and Development.
Leslie Ramsammy, the 2008 president of the World Health Assembly and Guyana’s health minister for the past 10 years, received warm applause when he told the forum that he wants these diseases to be made part of the Millennium Development Goals. Three of the eight goals are health-related: to reduce child mortality, improve maternal health and combat HIV/Aids. Alleyne agrees that showing how NCDs contribute to these three health problems could allow countries “to accelerate the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals.” (MDGs)
Ramsammy told GenevaLunch that it’s important to include these diseases in the MDGs because “no country wants to be seen as having failed its MDGs. This is why doing it outside the MDGs is not good. My president will say yes, of course diabetes is important and yes, it kills people, but that’s not what I’m being held accountable for,” and it is the same in every country, he believes. “We need more voices saying it’s an anomaly not to have included these diseases. We need to recognize now that it is an anomaly that they’ve been left out.”