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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 9:20 EDT

Chronic Disease Is Leading Killer Worldwide

April 27, 2011

Deaths from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise and are the leading killers worldwide, the World Health Organization reported in their Global Status Report on NCDs.

Heart disease, strokes, chronic lung diseases, cancers and diabetes result in about 36.1 million deaths in 2008, with almost 80% of these deaths occurring in low-to-middle-income countries.

“The rise of chronic noncommunicable diseases presents an enormous challenge,” says WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan.

Cardiovascular diseases account for most NCD deaths, accounting for 17 million people each year. This is followed by cancer, with 7.6 million deaths; respiratory disease, with 4.2 million deaths; and diabetes, averaging 1.3 million annually.

Eighty percent of all NCD deaths are caused by the four groups of diseases mentioned above; and four common risk factors are shared by them: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and poor diets.

Out of the 63% (equal to 36 million lives) of people who died from NCDs worldwide in 2008, the report says that 80% of them, or 29 million people, occur in low- and middle-income countries.

“For some countries, it is no exaggeration to describe the situation as an impending disaster; a disaster for health, for society, and most of all for national economies,” Dr. Chan says.

Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO assistant director-general for NCDs and mental health says, “About 30% of people dying from NCDs in low- and middle-income countries are aged under 60 years and are in their most productive period of life.

“These premature deaths are all the more tragic because they are largely preventable,” Alwan says.

“This is a great loss, not just at an individual level, but also profoundly affect the family and a country’s workforce. For the millions struggling with poverty, a vicious circle ensues. Poverty contributes to NCDs and NCDs contribute to poverty. Unless the epidemic of NCDs is aggressively confronted, the global goal of reducing poverty will be difficult to achieve.”

WHO believes that these deaths can be prevented if existing policies that promote government-wide actions against NCDs are more strongly enforced. Some of these actions include stronger anti-tobacco controls, reducing harmful use of alcohol, and promotion of healthier diets and physical activities. In addition, WHO believes that people’s access to essential health care should also be improved.

The report provides advice and recommendations for all countries, with special attention paid to conditions in low- and middle-income countries which are hardest hit by NCDs; and will be launched today during the WHO Global Forum held in Moscow, the Russian Federation to help address the challenge of NCDs.

The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control will be one of the topics at the forum. The Framework includes measures such as raising taxes on tobacco, banning tobacco advertising and legislating to curb smoking in public places.

Some other measures involve reducing levels of salt in foods, stopping the inappropriate marketing of unhealthy food and non-alcoholic beverages to children, and controls on harmful alcohol use.

WHO believes that this new report is a key component of the 2008-2013 Action Plan for the implementation of the WHO Global Strategy on the Prevention and Control of NCDs.

This Action Plan, endorsed by the 2008 World Health Assembly, provides countries a roadmap for taking action against NCDs. This including raising the priority of NCD control, improving disease surveillance, enabling governments to take comprehensive action against the diseases, and protecting countries, particularly developing, from the burden of the epidemic.

Dr. Chan says that NCDs cause billions of dollars in losses from national income and is one of the causes that push millions of people below the poverty line every year.

If no action is taken, WHO predicts that by 2030, NCDs will claim 52 million people annually.

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