The High Cost Of Chronic Disease


A study conducted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) found that the cost of treating chronic or non-communicable diseases (NCDs) over the next 20 years could reach $47 trillion, more than three times the current national debt.

Also, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Sunday that poorer countries could introduce measures to prevent and treat millions of cases of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness and respiratory disease for as little as $1.20 per person per year.

These topics are at the forefront of a landmark two-day health summit starting the UN General Assembly week in New York. The summit is expected to launch a discordant debate on the cost and responsibility for the five leading chronic diseases that kill more than 36 million people a year combined.

Non-communicable diseases account for more than 63 percent of all deaths worldwide, with about 80 percent of these deaths occurring in developing countries such as those in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

The WEF study noted that the estimated cumulative outpost loss caused by these illnesses represents about 4 percent of annual global gross domestic product (GDP) over the coming two decades.

“This is not a health issue, this is an economic issue — it touches on all sectors of society,” Eva Jane-Llopis, WEF´s head of chronic disease and wellness, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The WHO predicts by 2030, the global NCD epidemic will accelerate to more than 52 million deaths per year.

NCDs are often thought of as diseases of wealthy countries, where fatty foods, idle lifestyles and heavy use of tobacco and alcohol have become a mainstay for many people. But the risk of these diseases have become more prevalent in poorer countries in the past two decades, especially where access is limited to medicines and doctors, and knowledge on preventative measures is patchy at best.

WEF´s research, conducted with Harvard School of Public Health, and published on Sunday, found that the cost of NCDs in developing countries is expected to top $7 trillion by 2025. Mental illness alone will account for nearly $16 trillion in medical costs worldwide, more than a third of the overall estimate for all NCDs.

The study shows how families, countries and economies are losing people in their most productive years, said Olivier Raynaud, the WEF´s senior director of health.

“Until now, we´ve been unable to put a figure on what the World Health Organization calls the ℠world’s biggest killers´” he said in a statement. But the numbers suggest NCDs “have the potential to not only bankrupt health systems but to also put a brake on the global economy,” he added.

To tackle the NCD epidemic head on, the WHO made a list of recommendations that include measures that target whole populations, such as excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, legislating for smoke-free indoor workplaces and public places, campaigns to reduce levels of salt and trans fats in foods, and the creation of public awareness programs to help people improve their eating habits and increase their physical activity.

Other measure include screening, counseling and medications for people who are at risk of heart disease, screening for cervical cancer, and immunization against hepatitis B to prevent liver cancer.

The two-day meeting is the only second-ever high-level meeting to be held on a global health threat — the first was ten years ago on HIV/AIDS.

But health organizations and delegates worry that big consumer firms that sell processed foods, alcohol and tobacco might takeover the meeting and persuade governments away from setting targets and making commitments against such industries.

The summit’s summarized final statement takes tentative steps toward laying the blame for the deaths.

The UN member states “recognize that the most prominent NCDs are linked to common risk factors, namely tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, and unhealthy diet, and lack of physical activity.” They concur that NCDs are “one of the major challenges for development in the 21st century.”

“Poor populations and those living in vulnerable situations, in particular in developing countries bear a disproportionate burden,” the statement said.

NCDs are now at “epidemic level” and are a challenge to be confronted by all countries, said Anne Keeling, president of the NCD Alliance, which is the core of about 2,000 health organizations worldwide.

Keeling, who is also CEO of the International Diabetes Federation, said there are currently around 344 million people around the world suffering from diabetes and that number will soon surpass 500 million.

The summit´s statement says prevention must be the foundation of worldwide efforts to take control of chronic disease. But many experts are urging leaders to take an even tougher stance.

“Voluntary guidelines are not enough. World leaders must not bow to industry pressure,” said Olivier De Schutter, the UN℠s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. “It is crucial for world leaders to counter food industry efforts to sell unbalanced processed products and ready-to-serve meals too rich in transfats and saturated fats, salt and sugars.”

Aid for poorer countries will also be an issue at the summit. Aid in such countries currently makes up less than 3 percent of official development aid, much less than the aid given to tackle transmissible diseases like malaria, said Ala Alwan, deputy director general of the WHO.

“The need for immediate action is critical to the future of the global economy.” WEF’s executive chairman Klaus Schwab said.

The WEF study used three modeling methods to calculate the costs of NCDs — the WHO’s EPIC model, the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) approach and the Cost-Of-Illness (COI) approach.

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