On a global scale, noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease don’t just threaten health, but also development.
That’s how speakers framed the discussion at a World Health Organization panel on noncommunicable disease (NCD), held at the United Nations as a side session during the 43rd Session of the Commission on Population and Development (CPD).
Sir George Alleyne, director emeritus of the Pan American Health Organization, led off by calling NCDs a “major burden in terms of morbidity and mortality” in the developing world and a “neglected disease priority.”
Yet, 80% of NCDs can be controlled or prevented by reducing common risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthful diets, and inactivity, measures addressed in the WHO’s 2008-2013 Action Plan for the Global Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.
Dr. Rachel A. Nugent, deputy director for global health at the Center for Global Development, said that unlike infectious disease, which hits children and the elderly the hardest, NCDs primarily affect adults of working age. This in turn leads to reduced productivity and economic loss in developing nations.
A 2007 study found that a 10% increase in cardiovascular disease mortality among the working-age population decreases the per capita income growth rate by about 1 percentage point. Between 2006 and 2015, that loss is projected to total $84 billion (in U.S. dollars) worldwide.
“Even if health and social losses aren’t enough to compel us to action—and they are—the potential economic losses should move us to action,” Dr. Nugent said.
Dr. Gauden Galea of the WHO’s chronic disease division outlined the links between NCDs and infectious disease. For example, people with diabetes have a threefold increased risk for developing active tuberculosis, slightly more than the relative risk for active smokers.
According to a recent study, a 10% reduction in the death rate from NCDs would have a similar impact on progress toward TB eradication goals as would a rise in gross national product corresponding to at least a decade of growth in low-income countries.
Dr. Laurent Huber, director of the Framework Convention Alliance, an international antitobacco coalition, said his organization has joined forces with several international health groups and nongovernmental organizations to push for action on NCDs.
The coalition has two main priorities. One is inclusion of NCD indicators in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Currently, the MDGs—the blueprint for world development that guides funding decisions—don’t even mention NCDs. An MDG Review Summit is slated for September 2010.
The other priority—also endorsed by the Commonwealth of Nations and the Caribbean Community—is a September 2011 UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on NCDs to raise political awareness of the issue, just as a 2001 UNGASS did for HIV/AIDS.
Dr. Alleyne, a Barbados-born physician who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990, sees the NCD UNGASS not just as a priority but a necessity. “This has to happen,” he told me when I spoke with him briefly after the session ended. “We need a push. This has to happen.”
-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)