UN assembly backs steps to fight chronic disease

UNITED NATIONS - World leaders risk their own economic stability if they don’t tackle killers like cancer and diabetes in concert with the industries that impact public health, according to a high-level United Nations meeting on chronic disease.

By (Reuters)

Published: Wed 21 Sep 2011, 1:00 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 1:52 AM

The General Assembly session on noncommunicable diseases, taking place on Monday and Tuesday, is only the second such meeting in U.N. history to focus on global health, after nations came together to address the AIDS epidemic 10 years ago.

But their task is arguably more difficult and complex, drawing up a global action plan to fight killers such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, mental illness and respiratory disease, many of which are linked to choices regarding diet, tobacco, alcohol and exercise. They need cooperation from companies that make food, drug and tobacco products, as well as employers that may have environmentally hazardous workplaces.

“Our collaboration is more than a public health necessity. Noncommunicable diseases are a threat to development,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the meeting on Monday. “NCDs hit the poor and vulnerable particularly hard, and drive them deeper into poverty.”

Expectations going into the meeting had already been lowered, as wealthy nations and global corporations were unlikely to accept a financial hit in the near-term to help fund and promote the initiatives among poorer nations.

On Monday, the General Assembly adopted a declaration recognizing the economic and social burdens imposed by chronic disease, without setting specific goals to reduce their impact. Recommendations include promoting healthier diets and tobacco-free workplaces.

Important start

Members of the health community said the effort was an important start nonetheless.

“We are going to be faced with a virtual tsunami if we don’t intervene now.” Dr. John Seffrin, chief executive of the American Cancer Society, told Reuters ahead of the meeting.

While that “tsunami” has already begun to swell with the rising ranks of patients, Seffrin said it will get much worse over time without a major global intervention.

“If we don’t, it will have a dramatic negative impact, not just on global health, but on economies,” he said.

Chronic diseases kill more than 36 million people a year and are projected to cost the global economy nearly $47 trillion in the next 20 years, according to the World Economic Forum. The number of deaths could accelerate to 52 million per year in that time, according to the World Health Organization.

While often thought of as diseases of the rich world — linked to living on fatty, sugary foods, little exercise and too much alcohol and tobacco — NCDs now disproportionately affect people in poorer nations. More than 80 percent of NCD deaths are among people in low and middle income countries.

One of the biggest question marks remains the role of major tobacco and food companies, whose products have already come under fire in western countries for playing a role in rising rates of obesity and respiratory disorders.

Seffrin said the food industry and major drugmakers would likely cooperate.

“They will step up to the plate and will be responsible corporate citizens and follow up with practices to improve access to quality food and nutrition,” he said.

“Tobacco is the only renegade industry. They put profits over peoples’ lives. I don’t anticipate they’ll do anything positive.”

More news from WORLD