Last year's historic UN meeting set the stage for the fight against noncommunicable diseases. What are our next steps in stopping this slow-moving hurricane?
Last year, the United Nations (UN) convened a high-level meeting to address a global health crisis that is affecting everyone—non-communicable diseases (NCDs). NCDs include diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and chronic lung disease.
It was my honor to represent the American Diabetes Association and civil society at this meeting, and it was an educational and inspirational experience. It was also, however, a wake-up call for members of the health community that now, more must be done in order to ensure that the future of our globe is a healthier place.
The statistics alone are alarming. Right now, more than 366 million people worldwide have diabetes, and unless we take immediate and decisive action, that number is expected to grow to more than 552 million by the year 2030.1 Together, NCDs kill more people each year than acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), tuberculosis, malaria, and all other causes combined—36 million deaths each year, which accounts for 2 out of every 3 deaths around the world. No one and no country is immune. Although the numbers are sobering, there is hope, as the majority of these diseases are largely preventable. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 80% of type 2 diabetes and heart disease and up to 40% of cancers can be prevented by maintaining a healthy lifestyle; ie, by avoiding tobacco, limiting alcohol use, being physically active, and eating healthfully.2
In order to help stop this “slow-moving hurricane,” as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called NCDs, I believe that as leaders in the health world, there are key things we need to address together to make a difference.
Over the past year, the American Diabetes Association has engaged more than a million people in the movement to “Stop Diabetes.”3 We’re working ceaselessly to prevent and cure diabetes and to improve the lives of all people affected by diabetes. We do this by funding research to prevent, cure, and manage diabetes; delivering services to hundreds of communities nationwide; providing objective and credible information; and advocating for those denied their rights due to diabetes.
To address the huge global issue of NCDs, we must work together and speak with 1 voice. We must continue robust partnerships and bring everyone to the table, including associations, government, and non-governmental collaborators, to achieve success. We attended the World Health Assembly in Geneva this year to lend our voice in calling for specific, measurable targets in decreasing noncommunicable diseases. We were thrilled when the United States government led the way proposing these targets, and we continue to work with the government and other partners to advocate for realistic and achievable metrics.
These are tough economic times and it is not easy to ask for more spending on healthcare and, specifi cally, prevention. Yet, the fact remains that non-communicable diseases have the potential to slow countries’ economies even more over the next 2 decades. Last year, a study by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health estimated that the 4 primary NCDs could cost countries up to $30 trillion over the next 2 decades. Fortunately, there are low-cost public health “best buys” that can save millions of dollars and prevent premature death and disease.4 A 2011 WHO report showed that the costs of implementing some key public health interventions, like tobacco control and salt reduction, are affordable in all countries and would amount to just pennies per person per day.
These studies show that the costs of inaction far outweigh the cost of action. We need to support these interventions and encourage governments to adopt targets aimed at preventing and managing diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and other non-communicable diseases.
It’s easy to not take action and leave it all in the hands of government. But there are things we can do right in our own communities, or even our own backyards. The 10 targets we are trying to encourage governments to adopt surround issues like reducing tobacco use and increasing healthy eating and physical activity. And as we do this, we need to also think about what neighborhoods and communities can do to support these efforts. Advocating for walkable communities, planting community gardens, and working to improve access to healthy food are all steps that may seem small on a global scale, but their impact can be huge.
Please join me in raising awareness and stopping this slow-moving hurricane.