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The Director’s Corner

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“We must make governments aware of the urgency of non-communicable diseases – only then will they act.” 

A message from José Luis Castro, Executive Director, The Union

The world is in the throes of a non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic. NCDs – primarily cancer, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes – account for 68 percent of mortality worldwide. That is two out of every three deaths. 

And the challenge is increasing. NCDs are happening faster and to people much younger – affecting earning capacities, depriving families and crippling healthcare systems. Obesity has doubled since the 1980s. The number of overweight or obese children (0-5 years-of-age) increased from 32 million in 1990 to 42 million in 2016.* The global food environment has changed dramatically, processed food is cheap and accessible, and pushed by often aggressive, cynical advertising strategies. 

Let us look at Mexico, the host country for the 48th Union World Conference on Lung Health and a case in point. There, my colleagues and I were briefed on the growing and deadly NCD issues across the region. Mexico is the epicentre of diabetes and obesity. Deaths from NCDs have risen from just under half to three-quarters in two decades and where, annually, 98,000 people die due to diabetes complications. This is not a problem confined to Mexico, it is a problem that faces us all. 

The third United Nations High-Level Meeting (HLM) on Non-communicable Diseases in 2018, is a milestone that must be harnessed to address these issues and engage governments, healthcare professionals and people living with NCDs to come together to ensure concrete action on UN NCD targets. It is time to scale up our efforts. 

Political commitment is crucial to the progress we need to deliver. But this is easier said than done. For decades, NCDs have been neglected. While communicable diseases pose threats to national security and the imperative is on governments to act swiftly and decisively, NCDs quite simply do not inspire the same urgent response. 

I am in Montevideo, Uruguay, for The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Conference on Non-communicable Diseases (18-20 October), at the personal invitation of Dr Tabaré Vázquez, President of Uruguay. The meeting will focus on ensuring government policies are geared to promoting health and preventing and treating NCDs to support the Sustainable Development Goal target to reduce premature death from NCDS by one third by 2030. 

Dr Tedros, Director General, WHO, said recently, ‘Intensified action is needed to respond to the global epidemics of NCDS.” I welcome that commitment to action, rather than words. Nothing else will do, if we are to drastically reduce the impact of NCDs in our lifetime. 

*Figures from Childhood Obesity Fact Sheet – World Health Organization