(HN, December 8, 2010) - Diseases that have traditionally been the leading cause of death in industrialized countries - such as cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular and chronic lung disease - are now mostly found in poorer countries, and are increasing the circle of poverty.
So-called noncommunicable diseases now account for 60 percent of all deaths - or more than 35 million - and of these - a whopping 80 percent occur in low and middle income countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
"The main burden is on low and middle income countries," said Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO Assistant Director-General, Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health.
Alarmingly, Africa will see the highest increase in mortality from noncommunicable diseases - 25 percent in the next decade.
Noncommunicable diseases account for 80-85% of mortality and share the same risk factors - such as an unhealthy diet and alcohol abuse.
A high proportion of the deaths are pre-mature, occurring in people under 60-years-old. "They are not only an enormous health problem, but also have very negative socio-economic consequences," said Alwan.
The problem for poorer countries, WHO says, is that treatment of these chronic diseases are expensive. "Health care costs are increasing and in poor populations a significant proportion of families with a family member with cancer or heart diseaes, will experience what we call 'catastrophic expenditure' - which drive the family below the poverty line," Alwan said at a media briefing in Geneva, monitored by HUMNEWS.
He said that when families are driven further into poverty, the risk factors increase - such as tobacco use, diabetes and obesity. For example, the highest rates of smoking is in developing countries: about 60 percent of men in certain poor countries use tobacco prods.
Of 10 countries with the highest prevalence of diabetes in the world, almost all are in developing populations. The Pacific island nation of Nauru now has the highest prevalence of diabetes (about 30 percent) in the world, followed by the Gulf States.
"We now have clear evidence that the magnitude of diabetes is increasing in developing populations - including India and China," Alwan said.
"So there have been repeated initiatives to find solutions to address this increasing problem. What we want to highlight is these are largely preventable, said Alwan, adding that by addressing tobacco control, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity a substantial amount of illness and premature death can be averted.
Noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, are expensive to treat in developing countries so the most effective way to manage the epidemic is through prevention, experts say. The high rates of increase in cancer in the developing world was a key issue at the 2010 Clinton Global Initiative in New York.
The active engagement of non-health sectors - such as agriculture, finance, trade, education, information and transportation - are crucial to addressing the epidemic. For example, increasing the price of tobacco products is "one of the most effective ways" of decreasing smoking, Alwan said.
While there is no prospect for negotiation with the tobacco industry, Alwan said, the food sector might be able to come up with such tactics as reformulation of food products and more responsible marketing. WHO is also pressing countries to reduce the amount of salt in food products.
Poorer countries complain that the epidemic of noncommunicable diseases is not a priority of development agencies and donor countries. They are also calling for indicators and benchmarks - such as the MDGs - to assist the battle against noncommunicable diseases.
The UN General Assembly will be hosting a high-level global meeting on noncommunicable diseases in 2011.
- HUMNEWS staff