Noncommunicable Diseases Rising in Developing Countries


VANCOUVER, Washington– While AIDS, malaria and Ebola often take over the headlines in developing countries, noncommunicable diseases (NCD) are rising in frequency. According to the World Health Organization, Africa is the only region in the world where NCDs are not the leading the cause of death. However, by 2020 “the largest increases in NCD deaths will occur in Africa,” indicating a steady growth in the prevalence of NCDs globally.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that NCDs “such as heart disease and stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease kill more people globally than infectious disease.” These specific diseases are linked by certain risk factors like “tobacco use, unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, and harmful use of alcohol, as well as high blood pressure and cholesterol.” These issues are relatively preventable; however, 80 percent of NCD deaths are in “low-and middle-income countries,” which makes access to certain preventative measures difficult.

Inequality in healthcare will also factor into the future of NCDs in developing countries. According to a report done by the International Journal for Equity in Health, inadequate treatment will be a major factor in mortality. In first world countries, patients who develop chronic diseases generally have access to exceptional treatment and medication, while patients suffering from the same disease in developing countries are more susceptible to death due to lack of sufficient care.

NCDs are often neglected as a major issue in developing countries. The International Journal for Equity in Health found that although “the burden of premature death from diabetes is similar to that of HIV/AIDS…the problem is largely unrecognized.” This can be attributed both to the somewhat preventable nature of NCDs and the inability to detect some of these diseases in their early stages. Breast cancer, for example, is detected at advanced stages about 80 percent of the time in developing countries.

NCDs have been on the rise as developing countries have a tendency to “adopt national conventions…instead of pragmatic decisions such as prohibiting smoking in public areas, controlling alcohol abusers, encouraging physical activity, promoting healthy diet,” etc. These issues not only stem from poor personal habits, but to the “bad management and absence of goodwill.” For example, laws related to the prohibition of smoking in certain areas may exist, but are not enforced.

In order to reduce the likelihood of developing an NCD, the WHO states “surveillance is an essential tool for evidence-based public health decision making.” For example, the New England Journal of Medicine found that in South Asia, “oral cancer is most often caused by chewed tobacco,” which is a habit that could be controlled and eradicated with public health education.

Making education a top priority, however, has been a struggle, especially since developing countries often face outbreaks of communicable disease, which outrank NCDs in immediate importance. However, the rising incidence of NCDs will soon pose a threat to developing nations that can no longer be ignored. The International Journal for Equity in Health encourages developing nations to consider NCDs with more urgency, as in the future, the burden of both communicable and noncommunicable diseases would be too great to handle.

Bridget Tobin

Sources: New England Journal of Medicine, World Health Organization 1, World Health Organization 2, International Journal for Equity in Health, CDC
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