EMELDA MWITWA, Lusaka
HEADS of State and Government in the United Nations have committed to 13 new steps to tackle non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, heart and lung disease, stroke and diabetes, and to promote mental health and well-being.
The commitment by world leaders at the 73rd United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York recently, may see such products as tobacco and sugary drinks costing more and alcohol advertisements being restricted.
In some countries, these tough measures could see tobacco use being banned.
After a high-level meeting on the Control and Prevention of NCDs, the world leaders committed themselves to enacting laws and fiscal measures to enforce commitments which also include promoting healthy diets and physical activity to stop premature deaths due to NCDs.
The heads of State made this commitment in view of the stark reality that NCDs are responsible for 41 million deaths or 70 percent of all deaths in the world per annum.
This year alone, 15 million people aged between 30 and 70 will die from NCDs.
Apart from that, NCDs produce annual GDP losses of up to 6 percent per annum.
And if urgent measures are not taken to stop lifestyle and diet-related deaths, NCDs would cost developing countries US$7 trillion between 2010 and 2025, according the President of UNGA 73rd, Maria Espinosa.
“The state of NCDs today should alarm us all: 15 million people between the ages of 30 and 70 will die this year from NCDs. And most of these, at least 80 percent live in developing countries. Men and women, who should be living vibrant, productive lives are dying far too early,” Ms Espinosa said at high-level Meeting on Control and Prevention of NCDs.
Zambia is equally affected by the high burden of NCDs, which account for 23 percent of all deaths in the country, President Edgar Lungu told the high-level meeting at the 73rd UNGA.
President Lungu, who called for concerted efforts by all stakeholders to halt mortality due to NCDs, said 18 percent of these deaths in Zambia are premature.
He said cardiovascular diseases alone affect 8 percent of the adult population in Zambia.
Examples of NCDs include diabetes, cancers, hypertension, chronic lung disease, stroke, heart disease, mental illness and chronic kidney disease.
Opening the high-level meeting, the president of the UNGA 73 pointed out that NCDs have become “our biggest health challenge and are an economic sinkhole, absorbing healthcare costs faster than we can keep up with.”
She said while the poorest are most likely to suffer from NCDs, the health impacts of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and mental health conditions impair their ability to pursue social and economic activities.
This reduces their ability to contribute meaningfully to local development efforts.
“The reality is that NCDs are likely to affect most of us. That in itself should provide us enough motivation and urgency to prevent and control NCDs,” Ms Espinosa said.
She told the heads of State that responding to this complex challenge will require action in several areas, including legislation to manage corporate interests, and to overcome practices that for many countries are deeply-seated.
Ms Espinosa called for political will, including the allocation of resources, to achieve the bold goals countries have set.
In target 3.4 of sustainable development goals (SDGs), UN Member States committed to reduce by one-third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and wellbeing.
However, many countries have been making slow progress towards meeting this goal.
A recent study by The Lancet indicates that more than half of all countries in the world are not on track to meet SDG 3.4 on NCD mortality.
Nevertheless, Ms Espinosa noted with optimism that WHO has come up with 16 practical interventions that are cost-effective and feasible for all countries to meet SDG 3.4. These measures address tobacco and alcohol use, reducing salt, sugar and fat in food, increasing vaccinations for girls, and treating hypertension and diabetes, amongst other things.
These measures could prevent about 10 million deaths by 2025 and generate US$350 billion in economic gains, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) director general Tedros Ghebreyesus.
The UN had its first high-level meeting on Control and Prevention of NCDs in 2011, but now their inclusion in SDGs raises hope that member States will address the matter with deserved urgency.
To meet the SDG target 3.4 in the remaining 12 years, countries are expected to expedite their commitment to reducing tobacco consumption, alcohol abuse, promoting health foods and physical activities.
“We need a “whole-of-society approach” to promote action. This includes efforts to scale up the implementation of the commitments made in 2011 and 2014 to reduce tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diets and physical inactivity as well as to ensure access to affordable medicines and vaccines and to implement measures to improve mental health and well-being,” Ms Espinosa said.
WHO says that NCDs, especially cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancers and diabetes, currently account for the deaths of seven in every 10 people worldwide (41 million), including 15 million in the prime of their lives. It further says that mental conditions and disorders are a related concern, with depression alone affecting 300 million people.
In its Thirteenth General Programme of Work 2019-2023, WHO places strong emphasis on responding to the epidemic of NCDs and promotion of mental health, with investment in universal health coverage being at the core of national responses.
WHO has committed, during this period, to ensure that 1 billion more people benefit from universal health coverage; 1 billion more people enjoying better health and well-being; and 1 billion more people are better protected from health emergencies.
And regarding the latest political statement by world leaders on Prevention and Control of NCDs, Dr Ghebreyesus commended them for taking what he termed a set of landmark steps to beat NCDs.
He said the measures add up to a historic opportunity to promote health, save lives, and grow economies.
“World leaders agreed to take responsibility themselves for their countries’ effort to prevent and treat NCDs. They also agreed that these efforts should include robust laws and fiscal measures to protect people from tobacco, unhealthy foods, and other harmful products, for example by restricting alcohol advertising, banning smoking, and taxing sugary drinks,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.
He said the leaders committed to implementing a series of WHO-recommended policies to prevent and control of NCDs – such as public education and awareness campaigns to promote healthier lifestyles, vaccinating against HPV virus to protect against cervical cancer and treating hypertension and diabetes.
WHO estimates that implementing all these policies could generate US$ 350 billion in economic growth in low and lower-middle-income countries between now and 2030.
Other commitments focus on halting the rise of childhood obesity, promoting regular physical activity, reducing air pollution and improving mental health and wellbeing.
Dr Ghebreyesus said the political declaration reaffirms WHO’s global leadership of the fight to beat NCDs and promote mental health. It also urges the organisation to continue working closely with key partners, including government, civil society and the private sector.
Further, it calls on food manufacturers to take several actions such as reformulating products to reduce salt, free sugars and saturated as well as industrially produced trans fats.
Manufacturers will also be required to use nutrition labelling on packaged food to inform consumers, and restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children
EMELDA MWITWA, Lusaka