Why No One Talks about Non-Communicable Diseases

By Sridhar, Devi | UN Chronicle, June 2010 | Go to article overview

Why No One Talks about Non-Communicable Diseases


Sridhar, Devi, UN Chronicle


Infectious disease control was at the top of the agenda during the sixty-third session of the World Health Assembly, which took place in May 2010 in Geneva. With much attention given to progress towards achieving the health-related Millennium Development Goals, polio eradication, the implementation of the International Health Regulations, the regulation of counterfeit drugs, and influenza preparedness, there was little time to discuss one of the largest killers: non-communicable or chronic diseases.

Together, chronic diseases are responsible for about 60 per cent of deaths worldwide. The big four--diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases--are caused by three common risk factors: tobacco use, unhealthy diet, and lack of exercise.

Contrary to popular perception, the poor are the worst affected. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences reported that 11 per cent of men and almost 10 per cent of women living in urban slums in India had diabetes. Similarly, researchers from the Pan American Health Organization found that 47 per cent of women and 44 per cent of men in Peru had hypertension, with the poorest households in the study experiencing the highest burden of the chronic disease. Numerous studies demonstrate the strong link between poverty and chronic diseases.

What money is available to tackle this problem? It is estimated that less than 3 per cent of total donor funding goes to addressing non-communicable diseases, and a Lancet study found that, in 2005, chronic disease funding from the four largest donors in health was estimated at $3 per death annually, compared to $1,030 for HIV/AIDS.

Research by the Center for Global Development has shown that major donors such as the United States Government, the World Bank, and the United Kingdom Department for International Development have been reluctant to provide grants and loans to tackle non-communicable disease. Why is there such miniscule funding on the table? Perhaps because chronic diseases are not seen as directly linked to poverty or development, but are superficially attributed to affluence and Westernization. Perhaps because these conditions do not evoke the same feelings of empathy and social justice as do the traditional diseases associated with poverty. Perhaps because we put the onus of responsibility on the individual rather than on society, on personal choice rather than socioeconomic circumstance. …

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