WHO Sets Sights on Chronic Illness; Official Says Cutting Deaths Saves Billions

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

WHO Sets Sights on Chronic Illness; Official Says Cutting Deaths Saves Billions


Byline: John Zarocostas, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed Dr. Robert Beaglehole, director of chronic diseases at the World Health Organization (WHO), Friday in Geneva on the agency's new report, "Preventing chronic diseases: a vital investment." Dr. Beaglehole, 60, a New Zealand public-health physician, studied medicine in New Zealand, at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Question: WHO has set a new target to reduce the global death rate from chronic diseases by 2 percent per year through 2015. Why this new target?

Answer: Well, the reasons for the target is that we think the prevention and control of chronic diseases - heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases - has been neglected at many national levels and at the global level. And given the huge toll of chronic diseases - 35 million deaths this year, 400 million between now and 2015 - we think it important to propose a target to focus attention and focus resources on the prevention and control of chronic diseases.

Q: For the first time, drawing on case studies from nine countries, the report shows large potential savings for countries if they can reduce chronic diseases.

A: We have estimated for heart disease, for stroke and for diabetes alone, only a subset of chronic diseases, that the impact on national economies is huge. For example, in China, we estimate that the losses for the next 10 years to the national economy will be $558 billion and that if the goal of reducing death rates by 2 percent per year is reached, then China will save $36 billion. Our estimates of the impacts of chronic diseases on economies are conservative, and our goal is achievable.

Q: How big are costs and potential savings for other developing countries like India and for industrialized countries?

A: For countries like India, the costs will be $237 billion; for the Russian Federation $300 billion; and for Brazil, it will be approximately $50 billion. And the savings over the next 10 years are $15 billion for India, $20 billion for Russia and perhaps $3 [billion] or $4 billion for Brazil. So, there are large savings to be made through the prevention and control of chronic diseases.

Q: Despite the fact that this year about 35 million people will die from chronic diseases - a 60 percent share of the estimated 58 million total deaths - reducing deaths from chronic diseases was not part of the Millennium Development Goals. Was this an oversight?

A: I think it can probably be explained by the fact the MDGs, although accepted five years ago, came out of the international discussions of the 1980s and 1990s, and then the focus was on infectious diseases, on matters relating to maternal and child health. An oversight, understandable. A pity, because 80 percent of all deaths from chronic diseases do occur in lower-income countries, and half of the deaths from chronic diseases are of young people.

Q: The report projects a 17 percent increase in chronic diseases, yet at the same time, for infectious diseases, only a 3 percent increase.

A: Yes, these are projections, these are the best estimates.

There's no question epidemics will increase if we do nothing, and the expectation is that as increasing attention is brought to bear on HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria - the major causes of infectious diseases - and as more attention is brought to bear on infectious diseases of children, the infectious-disease epidemic will be contained and the growth will slow. ...

Q: At the public-health policy level, what should ministers, top officials and health staff in medical centers around the world be doing to address the chronic-disease problem?

A: A very important first step is for ... governments in general to recognize this is a critically important issue for individuals, for families, communities, for national economies. …

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