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HEALTH: ‘Lifestyle Diseases’ Cause Two-Thirds of Deaths

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, May 11 2011 (IPS) - Health experts from around the world have acknowledged rising numbers of ‘lifestyle’ or non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in different countries, admitted inadequate funds are the biggest obstacle in health delivery, and called on the global community to consolidate efforts to effectively tackle the problem.

“The health, socioeconomic and developmental costs are immense. More than nine million people die prematurely in their productive years before the age of 60. Healthcare costs are spiralling,” says Ala Alwan, assistant director-general of World Health Organizations (WHO’s) Non-communicable Disease and Mental Health Cluster. “The time to act has come.”

Jessica Brinton, a representative from the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, explained to IPS that NCDs are no longer a problem affecting only wealthy countries. “No matter what the measure – rank order, proportion, disability-adjusted life years, or deaths – NCD burden exceeds infectious disease burden in developing countries,” Brinton said. “Eighty percent of NCD deaths worldwide occur in developing countries.”

The numbers are stark. Of the 57 million deaths that occurred globally in 2008, 36 million – almost two thirds – were due to NCDs. NCDs are mainly cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic lung diseases. The combined burden of these diseases is rising fastest among lower and middle-income countries, populations and communities, where they impose large, avoidable costs in human, social and economic terms.

“Politicians and health experts alike recognise the growing burden of non-communicable diseases,” Jeffrey L. Sturchio, president and chief executive of the Global Health Council, the world’s largest alliance of organisations working in global health based in Washington, told to IPS.

Specifically, Sturchio pointed out, in Russia, NCDs cause nearly 70 percent of male deaths and more than 90 percent of female deaths. Though numbers vary, NCDs cause the majority of the disease burden throughout ex-Soviet republics and Eastern European countries.

With the exception of Armenia, Russia and other former Soviet republics do not yet have as high a prevalence of diabetes as other parts of Europe. However, they suffer proportionally more deaths from cardiovascular disease. Russia in particular has a high burden of stroke, along with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Sturchio explained.

“Ex-Soviet republics have higher rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease when compared with Eastern European countries,” Sturchio said. “This may be due to high rates of tobacco use, which continue to rise.”

Unprecedented attention is being placed on the fight against these diseases, which share four common risk factors – tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity and poor diet. The health and socioeconomic impacts of these diseases – particularly in developing countries and those struggling with poverty – represent one of the gravest public health challenges of the 21st century.

Governments in developing countries have been slow to adopt cost-effective measures to prevent NCD risk factors and the poorest countries are still working to scale up basic public health and treatment services, Brinton pointed out.

In developing countries, Brinton says, “Both the number of deaths and the morbidity burden of NCDs are expected to increase in absolute and relative terms compared to infectious diseases.”

A range of proven effective tools exists to stop people being exposed to the risks that lead to NCDs. Additionally, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control offers a range of cost-effective measures to curb tobacco-related harm, including taxation, legislation for smoke-free environments, health warnings and advertising.

“The evidence is now overwhelming that tobacco control measures work, and first and foremost taxing tobacco and its products is the most cost-effective tobacco control measure,” says Alwan. “Other strategies that can prevent NCDs include investing in population-wide salt reduction to lower blood pressure, and taxing alcohol.”

Still some experts are sceptical. “Practically governments alone cannot meet the challenges and the burden,” Evgeniya Alexeeva, executive director of Moscow based Public Health and Social Development, a non-profit health NGO, told IPS. “Efforts by private organisations are stifled and pushed out of the mainstream,” she said.

Sturchio strongly suggested that governments are important partners – along with civil society, the private sector, and other stakeholders – in the fight against NCDs, and governments must develop national strategies and policies that establish integrated approaches to prevention, treatment and care, set global and national targets for NCDs, and support coordination at all levels.

Experts, who gathered for the First Global Ministerial Conference on Healthy Lifestyles and Non- communicable Diseases Control, hosted by the WHO and the Russian Federation here in April, were gearing up for the U.N. General Assembly high-level meeting on the prevention and control of NCDs slated for September.

A report released at the conference on global status of NCDs provides a baseline for future monitoring trends and for assessing the progress that countries are making to address the epidemic.

The report is also the foundation for a call to action, by providing the knowledge base for a global response, recommendations for the way forward, and guidance for country leadership to contain one of the most significant current threats to global health, development and poverty reduction initiatives.

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