Health officials, practitioners and researchers recently gathered in Washington, D.C. for the 38th annual meeting of the Global Health Council. They focused, in part, on the rise of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and lung diseases -- a growing global challenge that requires the world's attention.
So serious is the global threat from NCDs that in September the United Nations (UN) will convene a first-ever "High-Level Meeting" devoted to the subject. The time is now right to bring together governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, academia and the private sector in a systematic effort to address this issue in a comprehensive manner.
Worldwide, NCDs kill more people every year than infectious diseases. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) -- in its first report on chronic disease -- NCDs were responsible for 36 million deaths in 2008. And the toll is rising: While NCDs cause two-thirds of the world's deaths today, they are projected to account for more than 75 percent by 2030.
These so-called "lifestyle diseases" -- brought about or worsened by poor diet, smoking, alcohol, and lack of exercise, as well as genetic and environmental factors -- bring hardship to rich and poor nations alike. However, while developed countries worry about the contribution of chronic disease to rising healthcare costs, the impact on developing nations is even more severe.
Contrary to popular opinion, nearly 80 percent of NCD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, making chronic disease a major cause of poverty and a serious barrier to economic development.
The potential costs of chronic disease for developing countries are staggering. The WHO estimates that from 2005 to 2015, NCDs will cost China $558 billion in lost economic growth and income; India - $237 billion; and Russia - $303 billion -- for a total of more than $1 trillion.
These estimates are driven by the millions of people pushed below the poverty line each year by their own illness or that of a family member. Too many are cut down in the prime of life: Approximately 30 percent of those who die from NCDs are in their productive years, under the age of 60.
These premature deaths are all the more tragic because many are preventable, and many others can be diagnosed and treated effectively. Straightforward, cost-effective solutions exist to take on the global NCD challenge -- from greater emphasis on preventive care, early detection, and public health awareness campaigns, to better measures to improve diagnosis, treatment and disease management in strengthened health systems.
The most effective way to combat NCDs will be via robust partnerships among governments, NGOs, academia and the private sector. The private sector is a powerful vehicle for bringing innovative approaches to improve health outcomes, albeit one that policymakers sometimes overlook.
For example, the workplace is an excellent venue for sharing health information and for delivering basic services. Already, many private companies have been working to develop employee health and well-being programs. They know that healthy workers are happier and more productive.
More than 40 organizations have partnered to form the Workplace Wellness Alliance, whose purpose is to encourage healthy lifestyles among employees and their families, including initiatives to discourage smoking. Its members include corporate household names.
Johnson & Johnson offers on-site wellness coaching and prevention programs to employees. Humana, through its program Journey to Health and Well-being: An Integrated Approach, aims to creating a company-wide culture of health. My company, Medtronic, has created a workplace wellness program called Total Health, which proactively addresses preventable disease by looking at risk factors, including poor diet, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and lack of exercise.
Private companies are also reaching out past the workplace doorstep. BD, for example, has undertaken an initiative that will offer cervical cancer screening to 75,000 underserved women in Peru. Merck has been a leader in fighting diabetes in Asia, home to 60 percent of all cases. The Medtronic Foundation has a major grantmaking program targeting rheumatic heart disease, one of the most preventable of all heart diseases. Though it has been all but eradicated in developed countries, RHD claims 200,000 lives annually in Africa alone.
The private sector has another important role to play as well -- as a cutting edge innovator of new technologies and treatments that can improve the lives of those suffering from chronic disease. Innovative technologies and healthcare delivery models can empower patients to better manage their health.
To combat NCDs effectively, we will need a high-level political commitment and an investment of resources -- including financial resources, know-how and human capital. The most effective approach will be one that engages the private sector in a constructive dialogue and makes full use of its expertise, resources and commitment.
Momentum is already building. The September UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs could galvanize the global community into action, just as the UN's HIV/AIDS special session did in 2001.
If we are ready to make that commitment, millions of premature deaths and debilitating conditions -- as well as their socio-economic consequences -- could be avoided each year. Nations and global regions would be strengthened, too, as costly illnesses no longer swallow families' incomes or deprive children of parents. It's an investment we can't afford not to make.
Jean-Luc Butel is executive vice-president and group president, international, at Medtronic, the world's largest medical technology company.
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