By Bekele Geleta, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)
Eduardo Pisani, Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Association (IFPMA)
With the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, infectious diseases and their impact on humankind have become a major preoccupation for the public, governments and the media alike. But while contagious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis have historically dominated the global healthcare agenda, less visible, yet deadlier, forms of illnesses are emerging as a mortal threat to millions worldwide.
Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases, collectively called “Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for the deaths of around 36 million people every year. It is estimated that poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and excessive alcohol intake are major factors behind the deaths of a staggering 100,000 people every day. And it’s not just rich nations that are feeling the damaging effects of sloth, excess and poor diet. Far from it, low and middle-income countries in the developing world are facing NCD deaths of epidemic proportions. Out of the 100,000 daily deaths, four out of five occur in the world’s poorest countries. NCD deaths are projected to increase by 15% globally by 2020.
Not only do NCDs remain a barrier to good human health, they also hinder poverty reduction and economic prosperity by placing excessive burdens on healthcare systems and by undermining the health of the national workforce. The cost of inaction risks running into trillions of dollars. The World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Risks Report identifies NCDs as the second most severe threat to the global economy in terms of likelihood and potential economic loss.
The sharp rise of non-communicable diseases in emerging market economies such as Russia, India and China is particularly worrying. Experts say that between 2005 and 2015 these countries could lose $200 billion to $550 billion of national income due to the effects of NCDs on their populations.
Whilst effective treatment for NCDs is essential, early action and prevention are critical. Preventing the onset of chronic illness will ultimately save governments valuable time and money, and relieve the burden on often overstretched healthcare resources. The development of better and more accessible screening programs combined with wider public awareness could also dramatically reduce the number of NCD related deaths.
Prevention has to start at the community level, with people being better informed and better equipped to take care of their own health. An estimated 80% of causes of cardiovascular disease and diabetes could be prevented simply through exercise, healthy diet and by cutting back on smoking. Encouraging people to drink responsibly and stop smoking, to take more exercise, and to improve their diet is therefore a basic but life-saving step.
Humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross Red Crescent, whose staff and volunteers work closely with local communities, play a vital role in bringing about changes in behaviour and attitudes towards health and lifestyle. But no single entity can bring about change alone. The growing problem of NCDs requires the input and influence of all sectors of our societies.
Pharmaceutical companies, whilst concerned with the research and development of new drugs and treatments, have recognized the critical need to address the challenge of the rise in non-communicable diseases in the developing world and are focusing their attention on both prevention and better access to treatment. Treatment, which in the case of NCDs should not be hindered by price, since most of the first-line treatments today exist in generic form, is critical; but preventing disease from occurring in the first place must now be an urgent priority.
The world is changing and all of us, public and private sector alike, recognize that our approach must change too.
The way in which we approach NCDs is of course different from the way infectious diseases have historically been tackled. The objective in the fight against NCDs is to address the root causes just as much as developing the cures, and this process must involve a far broader section of our societies. Strong leadership and political will is critical as this milestone UN High Level Meeting on NCDs gets underway in New York. Ten years ago, the world’s decision-makers promised to get tough on causes and effects of HIV/AIDS. With the lives of another 36 million people at stake, we urgently need the same political commitment on NCDs.