August 27, 2008

World Health Leaders Take Aim at Chronic Disease

By Currie, Donya

Climate change an issue at World Health Assembly meeting GLOBAL leaders have endorsed a six-year action plan to tackle noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, heart disease, diabetes and cancer, which are now the leading threats to human health worldwide.

Such diseases caused 60 percent of all deaths in 2005, killing an estimated 35 million people, noted health leaders, who endorsed the plan at the May meeting of the World Health Assembly. Eighty percent of those deaths occurred in low- and middle-income countries, with about 16 million deaths among people younger than 70. The action plan noted deaths from such diseases, which already take an alarming toll, are expected to rise by 17 percent over the next 10 years.

"The rapidly increasing burden of these diseases is affecting poor and disadvantaged populations disproportionately, contributing to widening health gaps between and within countries," according to the action plan.

The plan calls for mapping emerging epidemics of noncommunicable diseases and analyzing their social, economic, behavioral and political determinants as a basis for providing guidance on policy and control measures. Another purpose of the action plan is to reduce the level of exposure to common risk factors such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and the harmful use of alcohol "while at the same time strengthening the capacity of individuals and populations to make healthier choices and follow lifestyle patterns that foster good health." The plan also advocated strengthening health care for those with noncommunicable diseases by "developing evidence-based norms, standards and guidelines for cost- effective interventions and by reorienting health systems to respond to the need for effective management of disease of a clironic nature."

Also at its meeting in Geneva in May, the assembly pledged to intensify efforts to curb harmful use of alcohol - the fifth leading risk factor for global death and disability - asked ministers of health and the World Health Organization to take action to protect health from climate change, and reaffirmed commitments to eradicating polio and preparing for an influenza pandemic, among other actions.

The resolution on climate change adopted during the meeting calls on governments to develop health measures and integrate them into plans for adaptation to climate change. It also urges those governments to build the capacity of public health leaders to be proactive in providing technical guidance on health issues and to strengthen the capacity of health systems for monitoring and minimizing climate change impacts. That capacity should be strengthened through "adequate prevention measures, preparedness, timely response and effective management of natural disasters."

The climate change resolution also calls for effective engagement of the health sector and collaboration with key agencies and partners to reduce the current and projected health risks from a changing climate.

"Global warming and climate change are too real for most of us, particularly from developing countries, and particularly from small vulnerable states like the Caribbean," said Leslie Ramsammy, PhD, MSc, minister of health of Guyana and the World Health Assembly's president, during a May 19 speech. "We are dismayed at the continued lack of agreement among countries on a way forward."

Another key policy adopted during the meeting was a global strategy aimed at removing intellectual property barriers that block essential research and development supporting global public health. The intent is to encourage "needs-driven" rather than merely "market- driven" research to help target diseases that disproportionately affect developing countries. The strategy calls for an assessment of health needs in developing countries and identification of research and development priorities.

Other issues highlighted during the World Health Assembly meeting included eliminating the practice of female genital mutilation, moving forward on Millennium Development Goals and improving tobacco control. Members adopted a resolution on a global immunization strategy that aims to reduce measles deaths by 90 percent and achieve equitable vaccination coverage in at least 80 percent of the world. The resolution also calls for rapid introduction and use of life-saving vaccines.

"Immunization already averts 2 million to 3 million deaths every year, but so much more could be done," said Daisy Mafubelu, assistant WHO director-general for family and community health. "A lot of unnecessary suffering, disease and death could be avoided."

For more on the World Health Assembly, visit mediacentre/events/2008/wha61/en.

- Donya Currie

Health officials from around the world took action on pressing global health problems at May's World Health Assembly meeting.

Copyright American Public Health Association Aug 2008

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