Non-communicable diseases: Will they become a priority for community action?

Jagan Chapagain, Director - Asia Pacific, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)

Eduardo Pisani, Director General of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA)

Few would dispute that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have set countries on the road towards measurable improvements in health and social welfare. In 2015 a new set of priorities will guide the future global development agenda and it is vital that we see the fight against noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) included. NCDs have not been on the governments and donors agenda for the past years

NCDs form a rapidly rising portion of disease burden in the developing world. This week, health professionals from Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies across Asia Pacific are meeting in Kuala Lumpur to chart the future direction of our offensive against unhealthy life-styles. The evidence is clear. Cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases now account for almost two third of all deaths globally. South-East Asia is one of the regions where, according to WHO, NCD deaths will have the greatest increase globally - over 20 per cent between 2010 and 2020.

NCDs share four main behavioural risk factors, all of which will likely escalate in South-East Asia: tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, insufficient physical activity, and unhealthy diet/obesity. Malaysia for example has one of the highest prevalence of overweight people in the region, with more than 40 per cent of the society affected. Although a relatively small proportion of women smoke, 40 per cent of Malaysian men are regular tobacco users.

These major killers take their toll not only on the families and friends of those who die; they also have an economic impact. According to World Economic Forum over the next 20 years, NCDs will cost more than US$ 30 trillion, representing 48 per cent of global GDP in 2010. Diabetes costs alone account for 16 per cent of Malaysian healthcare budget.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) have launched a global initiative, called ‘4 Healthy Habits’, that will promote healthy living in many countries around the world. Almost 80 per cent of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes and over a third of all cancers could be prevented. Prevention efforts need to be based not only on effective primary care and access to health services but first and foremost on strengthening protective factors, which include earlier investment in prevention of NCDs and the promotion of healthy lifestyles, particularly among young people.

Changing behaviour is a process requiring greater investments into long term participatory communication efforts. We need to bring the message to people’s homes, repetitively and on a bigger scale. This requires innovative partnerships between organisations such as the one between IFRC and IFPMA.

Together, we need to advocate for a global approach that links skilled volunteers to NCD prevention efforts. The IFRC and IFPMA are rolling out a very practical, simple and easy to use toolkit that helps Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers communicate with people in their communities about the dangers of NCDs, while also promoting healthy habits. The volunteers will also be trained to conduct basic health screening like measuring blood pressure. The plan is to make the toolkit available to approximately 3 million people worldwide. The volunteers are being equipped to work with people of all ages from different walks of life in small and big groups, whatever the situation requires.

Looking beyond 2015 we have to move from an era focusing mainly on communicable diseases and survival, to the need to invest heavily in healthy life expectancy. It is clear that meeting this challenge requires the collaboration of different organisations spanning the public and private sectors.