Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Environment, Headlines, Health, Poverty & SDGs

HEALTH: &#39Chronic Diseases Bigger Threat Than Terrorism&#39

Neena Bhandari

SYDNEY, Feb 28 2008 (IPS) - International health experts and activists are calling for immediate global action to avert the looming epidemic of preventable chronic diseases which will kill 388 million people in the next decade, threatening economies in the developed and developing worlds.

Poor diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use are said to be contributing to preventable chronic diseases including heart disease/stroke, diabetes, cancers and chronic lung disease responsible for nearly 60 percent of the world&#39s deaths.

Tobacco kills almost five million people a year, according to the World Health Organisation. Without a drop in consumption, that number could increase to 10 million by the year 2020 – and 70 percent of these deaths will be in developing countries.

Oxford Health Alliance (OxHA) executive director Prof. Stig Pramming said: "Across the developed and developing world chronic diseases are running wild. The way we live now is making us sick: it&#39s making our planet sick and it&#39s not sustainable."

"This is everybody&#39s problem, which is why we have a moral obligation to bring it to the top of the world&#39s health and political agendas", Pramming told the fifth annual conference of the OxHA, co-founded by Oxford University. The Feb. 25-27 event in Sydney brought together world experts from the fields of health, academia, government, business, law, economics and urban planning.

A Sydney Resolution, demanding healthy places, healthy food, healthy business, and healthy public policy, signed at the end of the conference will be sent to leaders of the G8 and G22 countries, the World Bank, the United Nations agencies and major donor organisations for their support.

"It is true that new and re-emerging health threats such as SARS, avian flu, HIV/AIDS, terrorism, bioterrorism and climate change are dramatic and emotive. However, it is preventable chronic disease states that will send health systems and economies to the wall," Pramming warned.

Heart disease and diabetes alone account for 32 million deaths each year and their incidence is not only increasing, but they are affecting younger people in the prime of their working lives.

Entitled &#39Building a healthy future: chronic disease and our environment&#39, experts and activists called for changing lifestyle, policies and perspectives at every level of society to prevent an explosion of chronic diseases.

The conference issued a Sydney Resolution calling for making cities walkable and workplaces healthier, more open spaces in urban areas, reducing sugar, fat and salt content in food, and making fresh food affordable and available.

As OxHA Trustee and Chairman of the Oxford Centre for Diabetes Prof. David Matthews said, "At the end of the day, you might not be able to tell whether it was cycle lanes in your city or stairs in your buildings or labelling on food that had the best impact but it doesn&#39t really matter. The likelihood is it will be a combination of those things that come together to improve the health of a nation."

Emphasising the crucial role of the private sector, Matthews said: "Private sector needs to understand that good health is good business. Business can contribute firstly by aligning their products, services and advertising with good health and also by investing in their employees with workplace change and wellness programmes."

A new report, &#39Indicators for chronic diseases and their determinants, 2008&#39, released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare on Wednesday shows that bowel cancer incidence rates have risen in the last decade, to the point where it is the second most common cancer in Australians-but survival rates have been improving.

"Over the last 20 years, while lung cancer rates have decreased for males, they have increased for females. The proportion of Australians reporting Type 2 diabetes has more than doubled in 10 years, from around two percent in 1995 to almost 5 percent in 2004-05," says Ilona Brockway of the AIHW&#39s Population Health Unit.

Experts and activists were disappointed that too much focus was laid on combating terrorism and not addressing the unfolding chronic disease epidemic.

American law professor Lawrence Gostin, an adviser to the United States government and director of the Law Centre at Georgetown University, Washington DC, said, "There&#39s a political paralysis in dealing with the issue. In the current U.S. presidential campaign, prevention of obesity and the effect it is having on the poor has so far registered barely a blip on the Democratic side of politics and zero on the Republican side."

"Yet the human costs are frightening when we consider that obesity could shorten the average lifespan of an entire generation, resulting in the first reversal in life expectancy since data collecting began in 1900," Prof Gostin added, calling for strict regulations on aggressive marketing and advertising of unhealthy food.

Ruth Colagiuri, an associate professor of public health at the University of Sydney and OxHA&#39s Asia-Pacific Co-director, also emphasized the need for fresh food to become more affordable and the sugar, fat and salt content of food reduced.

In Australia, four million working days are lost each year through obesity. In 2004-05, almost 60 per cent of males and 40 per cent of females were either overweight or obese. Obesity in males has increased from 11 percent to 18 percent and for females from 11 percent to 15 percent over the period 1995 to 2005.

The report showed that two-thirds of Australian adults do not exercise enough to benefit their health. Insufficient physical activity is a risk factor in many chronic diseases and is estimated to cause 1.9 million deaths worldwide each year. More than half of the world&#39s population does not reach recommended levels of physical activity.

Prof. Tony Capon, project director for the OxHA&#39s Environmental Design for Prevention Initiative said, "We need to build the physical activity back into our lives and its not simply about bike paths, it&#39s about developing an urban habitat that enables people to live healthy lives: ensuring that people can meet most of their daily needs within walking and cycling distance of where they live."

Experts said the cost of caring for patients with preventable chronic illness could overwhelm health care systems in developing nations.

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