Neil Canavan

September 19, 2011

September 19, 2011 — A report just issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) provides guidance for international stakeholders to address the enormous economic impact of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) by suggesting low-cost methods of reducing NCD incidence.

The report, From Burden to "Best Buys": Reducing the Economic Impact of Non-Communicable Diseases in Low- and Middle-Income Countries , is a synthesis of 2 previous studies: a joint effort by the World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health looking at the effects of NCDs on the global economy; and an in-house analysis by the WHO of the costs of scaling up disease-prevention programs in low- and middle-income countries. The 4 diseases that are the focus of the report are cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases.

"Noncommunicable diseases are the leading cause of death worldwide, killing ever more people each year," says Ala Alwan, MD, assistant director-general for NCDs and mental health at the WHO. "Nearly 80% of these deaths occur in low- and middle income countries."

The negative effect on global economies is staggering. According to the WHO, given current population-growth trends and rates of NCD incidence, cumulative economic losses to low- and middle-income countries will surpass $7 trillion dollars by 2025.

The WHO report was undertaken to determine what low-cost interventions — even small improvements in disease prevention — could help reduce this rising tide. In one example, a reduction of 10% in the rate of ischemic heart disease and stroke in low- and middle-income countries would prevent economic losses in the order of $25 billion annually, which, the report states, is 3 times greater than the investment needed for the measures to achieve these benefits.

Some of the tactics recommended in the report include population-based initiatives, such as excise taxes on alcohol and tobacco products, the promotion of smoke-free indoor environments, the reduction of available polyunsaturated dietary fats, and public-awareness programs addressing issues of diet and exercise.

Strategies recommended at the scale of the individual include risk assessments for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and the provision of related drug therapy if required, screening for cervical cancer, and vaccination against hepatitis B, a leading cause of liver cancer.

The proposed measures are considered highly cost-effective (defined as not exceeding $0.50 per person per year). The implementation of such programs have already significantly reduced the burden of cardiovascular disease in 38 countries, according to the report.

These findings and related initiatives and issues are being discussed at the United Nations 2011 High-Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases (UN NCD Summit), being held in New York City today and tomorrow.

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