Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, Poverty & SDGs

LATIN AMERICA: Fighting Rise in Non-Communicable Diseases

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 9 2011 (IPS) - Some 50 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Latin America have formed a coalition to fight cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes and cancer, which have become the main causes of death and disability for people in the region.

Representatives of the NGOs, which are mostly made up of health professionals, announced Mar. 4 in Buenos Aires that they had decided to create the Coalición Latinoamérica Saludable (Healthy Latin America Coalition, CLAS).

The main risk factors for these chronic non-communicable diseases (CNCDs) are smoking, a diet with insufficient fruit and vegetables, and a sedentary lifestyle, among other unhealthy behaviours.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), CNCDs cause 60 percent of deaths worldwide and 44 percent of early deaths. Furthermore, 80 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries.

“It’s wrong to believe these are just diseases that affect the elderly,” Dr. Jesús González Roldán, head of the Mexican Public Health Association and a representative of the International Union against Tuberculosis and Lung Diseases, told IPS.

“In Mexico, life expectancy is 75 years, but three out of five deaths occur before that, when people are still at a productive age, due to non-communicable diseases,” he said.

In his country these illnesses cause eight out of 10 fatalities, González Roldán said. While 50 years ago the main cause of death was infectious diseases, nowadays the CNCDs have displaced them, he pointed out.

Concern over the increased prevalence and mortality of these diseases was discussed in Mexico in February, at a meeting of health ministers of the Americas, convened to analyse the new challenges.

Mexican Health Minister José Córdova Villalobos noted that in 1960, CNCDs were responsible for seven percent of deaths in the Americas, compared to over 70 percent today.

Moreover diabetes, associated with obesity, is today the leading cause of death in Mexico. In second place are cardiovascular illnesses, associated with bad habits and inactivity, he said.

The ministers agreed to work on a common position in preparation for the United Nations summit on prevention and control of CNCDs, to be held in September in New York. Civil society organisations are doing the same.

The summit meeting was called by the U.N., at the initiative of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a region suffering the worst indicators of mortality from CNCDs.

In an interview with IPS, Eduardo Cazap, president of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), said the incidence of cancer is on the rise. There are 12 million new cases a year worldwide, and 1.2 million in Latin America.

“For the decade 2020-2030, in the most advanced countries the number of cancer cases will stabilise with only a slight increase, but in Latin America, Asia, Africa and some Middle Eastern countries the number of cases is going to increase threefold,” Cazap said.

Developing regions will bear a heavier burden of the disease, added to health problems typical of poor countries.

Cazap said genetic factors explain only eight percent of cancer cases. The principal causes are related to tobacco use, exposure to sun, obesity, sedentary lifestyles and pollution.

However, “the cure rate for cancer is rising,” he said. In 1950, only 20 percent of cases of cancer were cured, but now the proportion has risen to 50 percent. The problem, he said, “is not one of public health, but of human development.”

To fight cancer, Cazap recommended putting a priority on education and awareness-raising, prevention, and early diagnosis.

People should lead “a healthy lifestyle,” meaning keeping close to their ideal body weight, eating more fruit, vegetables and fish, taking exercise, limiting sun exposure and — definitely — no smoking, he said.

Dr. Verónica Schoj, of the InterAmerican Heart Foundation, told IPS that tobacco consumption is very high in Latin America. In some countries, like Argentina, Chile or Cuba, it is “among the highest in the world,” she said.

Within this already serious epidemic, there are worrying new trends, like increased smoking among women and children. “In some countries the average starting age for smoking is 12, and in others it is eight,” Schoj said.

She said that in Argentina, lung cancer in women has doubled in the last 20 years because of smoking, and that if the regional trend is maintained, soon cases of lung cancer in women will outnumber breast cancer cases.

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