Governments and health experts from around the world will meet in Moscow in late April as part of a global push to prevent and control non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which kill three in every five people on the planet.

The First Global Ministerial Conference on Healthy Lifestyles and Non-communicable Diseases Control is being hosted by the World Health Organization and the Russian Federation on 28-29 April. This conference is a critical part of the build up to the 19- 20 September 2011 United Nations General Assembly High-level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of NCDs, the four main types being: cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic lung diseases and diabetes.

Unprecedented attention is being placed on the fight against these diseases, which share four common risk factors, namely tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity and poor diet. The health and socioeconomic impacts of these diseases, particularly in developing countries and those struggling with poverty, represent one of the gravest public health challenges of the 21st century.

“Non-communicable diseases kill over 36 million people annually, primarily from heart and lung diseases, cancers and diabetes, and 80% of these deaths occur in the developing world,” says Dr. Ala Alwan, Assistant Director-General of WHO’s Noncommunicable Disease and Mental Health Cluster. “The health, socioeconomic and developmental costs are immense. More than 9 million people die prematurely in their productive years before the age of 60. Healthcare costs are spiraling. The time to act has come.”

The goals of the Moscow conference are to highlight the magnitude and socio-economic impact of NCDs: to review international experience in NCD prevention and control; and provide evidence on the pressing need to strengthen global and national initiatives to prevent NCDs.

And the evidence is clear. Heart disease, stroke and diabetes are estimated to cost low-and middle-income countries up to 5% of GDP. By 2030, NCD-related deaths in Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia will grow by over 50%. Globally diabetes deaths will increase by two-thirds. More than 8 million of premature deaths are in developing countries, which are very vulnerable to NCDs.

“These are no longer diseases that should be regarded as a problem for richer countries alone. They are affecting people from all walks of life in every country on the planet. Who does not know someone who has died or suffered from one of these diseases, or who are now suffering themselves from one? We can do more,” says Dr. Alwan.

One key measure that countries can take is to use the WHO 2008-2013 Action Plan to implement the Global Strategy on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases. Key measures in the plan including promoting use of low-cost measures that reduce the main shared modifiable risk factors for NCDs, establishing national policies and places to prevent and control these diseases, promote whole-of-government action against NCDs and to raise the priority these illnesses are given on the international development agenda.

“Stopping the tide of these diseases is not for health workers and hospitals alone. It is for all sectors of society to work together on, as NCDs affect everyone,” says Dr. Alwan. “In many countries, particularly in the developing world, it is patients needing treatment for NCDs that are filling hospital wards. Hospitals, clinics and health systems at large need to be stronger if they are going to care for such patients, as well as those needing other services, such as for HIV/ AIDS, tuberculosis and child and maternal health issues.”
A range of proven effective tools exist to stop people being exposed to the risks that lead to NCDs, particularly tobacco and harmful use of alcohol. The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control offers a range of cost-effective measures to curb tobacco-related harm, including taxation, legislation for smoke-free environments, health warnings and advertising.
“The evidence is now overwhelming that tobacco control measures work, and first and foremost taxing tobacco and its products is the most cost-effective tobacco control measure,” says Dr. Alwan. “Other strategies that can prevent NCDs include investing in population-wide salt reduction to lower blood pressure, and taxing alcohol.”

In terms of unhealthy diets, analysis has shown that population health can be improved through the implementation of various prevention policies, which entirely or largely pay for themselves. These include making health information widely available to people, fiscal measures that increase the price of unhealthy foods and lower the price of healthy foods, and restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy food products.

Urbanization and reduced physical activity are major drivers of NCDs, and measures can be taken by governments to improve the environments that people live and work in, such as by promoting public transport, and providing footpaths and cycle paths.

The day before the Moscow Ministerial conference, another key conference involving non-governmental organizations, the private sector and other health stakeholders will take place in the Russian capital. The WHO Global Forum: Addressing the Challenges of NCDs will identify and commit priority actions to strengthen global action to prevent and control non-communicable diseases.

Says Dr. Alwan: “Global action on all levels is essential to reverse the NCDs epidemic. Health is a common issue for us all. We have a historic opportunity for change, we cannot wait any longer.”

For more information

© 1949-2011 UN Special