How Chronic Diseases Hurt the Poor

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NORRISTOWN, Pennsylvania — Director-General of the U.N.’s World Health Organization (WHO), Margaret Chan, discussed the projected effects chronic diseases will have on some of the poorest countries at the U.N. General Assembly High-Level meeting held in New York on July 10.

It was during the opening remarks of this assembly that Chan revealed 85 percent of premature deaths caused by chronic diseases occur in developing countries. After much examination of projected trends, it was stated that the percentage will only continue to increase in these regions.

The purpose of this General Assembly High-Level Meeting was to evaluate the progress made toward the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases as first outlined in the General Assembly’s 2011 Political Declaration, the progress of which Chan referred to as “a watershed moment.”

This political declaration established the WHO as a global leader in the tackling of chronic diseases, due to its  forming a list of time-bound assignments. These assignments outlined global mechanisms, and provided a roadmap for multi-sectoral collaboration and the evaluation of results.

Although this declaration was viewed as a success since it encouraged both action and prevention as key elements in a global response, its success was not seen in developing countries, where assistance in combating chronic diseases is crucial.

Many countries are beginning to incorporate basic health measurements, like a unit, department, operational plan and budget dedicated to combating chronic diseases, but this progress is very uneven among developing countries and is insufficient to combat the projected increase in chronic disease cases.

However, Chan stressed that this lack of progress is due to the various difficulties these countries face. “I see no lack of commitment. I see a lack of capacity to act, especially in the developing world,” said Chan.

According to the WHO, 29 out of the approximately 36 million deaths caused by chronic diseases occur in low and middle income countries, because these poor and developing regions do not have access to the necessary health measures.

Chronic or non-communicable diseases like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, arthritis and cancer account for approximately 60 percent of all deaths in the world according to the WHO. Chronic diseases are not transmitted from person to person, but they present a serious health threat since they usually last for long periods of time due to slow progression. Although these diseases are considered to be the most costly and common health conditions, they are also the most preventable.

Despite being highly preventable, the projected number of deaths caused by chronic diseases is estimated to increase in the very near future. According to the General Assembly President John Ashe, 44 million will die due to chronic diseases every year by 2020.

Considering that these chronic diseases present such serious health threats for both the present and future, Chan stressed the importance of increasing the availability and affordability of healthier food options in developing countries since many consume unhealthy, cheaper foods for convenience. In addition, education on the harmful effects of smoking, alcohol and physical inactivity must be incorporated into programs, along with all ministries emphasizing the message that chronic diseases are on the rise.

Although notable progress has been made in the prevention and control of chronic diseases, many difficulties still need to be overcome in order to reverse the projected increase. As Chan explained, “Challenges remain enormous and demand a fundamental change in the way social progress is measured, the way governments work, the way responsibilities are assigned and the way boundaries of different government sectors are defined.”

Meghan Orner

Sources: UN News Centre, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization
Photo: UN News Centre

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Meghan Orner

Meghan is a BORGEN Magazine writer from Norristown, Pennsylvania.

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