As the world turns to the 67th World Health Assembly this week in Geneva, the development community rightly focuses on what the Millennium Development Goals will look like in a post-2015 world. Health issues like HIV/AIDS, Malaria and maternal/child health have been at the forefront of international development, and rightly so. While big gains have been made in issues like child survival, efforts would have to be redoubled to meet the global targets to reduce child mortality. There is a key issue beginning to gain traction in international development, one that could cost the global economy more than $30 trillion in the next 20 years – non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

What are NCDs?

NCDs refer to chronic diseases that are not passed from person to person. There are four main types of NCDs:

  • Cardiovascular disease (i.e., heart attack and stroke)
  • Cancer
  • Chronic respiratory disease (i.e., chronic obstructed pulmonary disease and asthma)
  • Diabetes, illnesses that result in more than 36 million deaths annually

NCDs are the leading causes of death in all regions except Africa, however current projections show that by 2020 the largest increases in NCD deaths will occur in Africa.

While NCDs are typically associated with the elderly, all age groups and all regions are affected by them. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 9 million of all deaths attributed to NCDs occur before the age of 60. In fact, NCDs are the leading cause of death for women worldwide, causing 65% of all female deaths (18 million deaths annually).

Caused by genetics or lifestyle choices (i.e. unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, exposure to tobacco smoke, harmful use of alcohol) NCDs threaten progress towards the Millennium Development Goals as diseases are driven by things like ageing, rapid urbanization, and the globalization of unhealthy lifestyles. Poverty exacerbates these issues, especially in low-income countries where the world’s most vulnerable are exposed to harmful pollution and poor nutrition yet have limited access to health services.

NCDs can have a devastating effect on families due to high medical costs, cost of transportation to and from health facilities, and loss of productivity. Death by NCDs can drive families deeper into poverty, resulting in a greater burden to children and surviving family members. As women in the developing world are often responsible for household work – such as collecting firewood, cooking, gathering water, and tending livestock – that burden then falls onto children.

Photo Credit: Pete Lewis / Department for International Development
Photo Credit: Pete Lewis / Department for International Development

Healthier Habits

In order to decrease the impact of NCDs, WHO recommends a comprehensive approach of all sectors (i.e., health, finance, foreign affairs, education, agriculture) to change the behavior of members of at-risk communities. By encouraging a healthy lifestyle (free of tobacco use, less alcohol, and proper nutrition) communities can begin to understand the risks of unhealthy habits and inform their families and communities. With this in mind, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) launched a global initiative called ‘4 Healthy Habits‘ during a side event at the 67th World Health Assembly.The partnership will provide Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers information and tools to promote healthy lifestyles and change behaviors within communities around the world.

 ’4 Healthy Habits’ core strength is the empowerment of communities. Using simple tools adapted to local contexts, beneficiaries will be able to take charge of their own health.” – Eduardo Pisani, IFPMA Director General

 The ‘4 Healthy Habits’ initiative kicks off this month in Asia-Pacific and Europe, where 50 trained facilitators and volunteers from 33 countries will work to raise awareness about the dangers of NCDs, promote healthier habits, and conduct basic screenings.

Challenges Ahead

While behavioral change is challenging in itself, other trials loom in the face of preventing NCDs. Early diagnosis is a critical component of preventing deaths yet remains extremely difficult in less developed countries where communities have little to no access to health centers, vaccines, or proper equipment. Initiatives like ‘4 Healthy Habits’ are hoping to prove that interventions and early detection are positive economic investments as they can reduce the need for more expensive treatment or long-term care.

Financing also remains a challenge, though the global development community is hopeful that NCDs will gain more support after the MDGs expire in 2015. At last year’s World Health Assembly meeting, a 20.5% increase in WHO’s 2014-2015 budget for NCDs was approved – from $264 million to $318 million.

As the ‘4 Healthy Habits’ initiative launches this week, advocates for increasing visibility of NCDs are hopeful that NCD prevention will soon be included in donor and policymaker agendas. Preventative care is a cost-effective approach to creating a healthier world for all and ensuring the livelihood of men, women, and children all over the world.

Infographic by The NCD Alliance
Infographic by The NCD Alliance

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