Non-communicable diseases, which can seriously undermine a country's social and economic development, are progressively killing more people worldwide, according to a new report issued by the World Health Organization. Examples of non-communicable diseases include diabetes, Alzheimer's, cancer, osteoporosis, chronic lung disease, stroke, and heart disease. Almost four-fifths of all deaths from non-communicable diseases occur in developing countries.

Non-communicable diseases, also known as NCDs are non-infectious medical diseases or conditions. They usually last a long time and progress slowly. Many are chronic diseases. However, some chronic diseases are not non-communicable because they are infectious, such as HIV/AIDS.

WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan, said:

"The rise of chronic noncommunicable diseases presents an enormous challenge. 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.

Chronic non-communicable diseases deliver a two-punch blow to development. They cause billions of dollars in losses of national income, and they push millions of people below the poverty line, each and every year."

Existing measures, if they were implemented with more force, could prevent millions of deaths annually. Examples include stricter anti-tobacco controls, the promotion of healthier eating habits, exercise, a reduction in the harmful use of alcohol, improving access to essential health care, and the promotion of health authorities' action against NCDs.

The report, titled Global Status Report on NCDs includes statistics, facts and experiences required to carry through a more effective response to the ever growing menace that chronic non-communicable diseases pose, at country, regional and global levels. The authors explain that it is a baseline from which future NCD statistics and country responses can be charted. It includes recommendations for every nation and focuses especially on low- and middle-income countries - where the impact of NCDs is enormous.

Annual non-communicable disease deaths are estimated to total:
  • 17 million from cardiovascular disease
  • 7 million from cancer
  • 4.2 million from respiratory disease
  • 1.3 million from diabetes
  • The above four make up 80% of all deaths from NCDs. They are all linked to alcohol abuse, smoking, lack of exercise, and unhealthy eating habits.

The problem is not restricted to rich countries

Dr Ala Alwan, WHO Assistant Director-General for Non-communicable Diseases and Mental Health, said:

"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. 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."

In a communique, WHO wrote that:

"NCDs killed 63% of people who died worldwide in 2008. This equals 36 million and nearly 80% of these NCD deaths - equivalent to 29 million people - occurred in low- and middle-income countries, dispelling the myth that such conditions are mainly a problem of affluent societies. Without action, the NCD epidemic is projected to kill 52 million people annually by 2030."

The report includes estimates of the NCD epidemic and their risk factors in each country, details on what impedes several countries from responding effectively, how to control runaway health-care costs, and strategies that could reduce the number of deaths significantly.

Measures to reduce the number of deaths include:
  • Raising tobacco tax
  • Banning the advertising of tobacco products
  • Introducing legislation to prohibit smoking in public places
  • Lowering the levels of salt in foods
  • Curbing inappropriate marketing of foods that are bad for you
  • Banning alcohol advertising that is aimed at children
  • Controls on the harmful use of alcohol
WHO explains that this report forms part of the 2008-2013 Action Plan, "for the implementation of the WHO Global Strategy on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases," which was approved by the 2008 World Health Assembly. It explains how countries can improve disease surveillance, get their health authorities to take effective action against NCDs, and how to protect developing nations from huge toll of these NCD epidemics.

Risk factors that increase the likelihood of many non-communicable diseases include:
  • The individual's background - their social and economic positions, known as social determinants of health
  • The individual's environment, such as exposure to air pollution
  • Age - half of all NCD deaths occur among people aged at least 70 years
  • Genetics
  • Physical inactivity
  • Sex
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet
"Global Status Report on NCDs"
Editors: World Health Organization, Pages: 176, Publication date: April 2011 Languages: English, ISBN: 978 92 4 156422 9

Written by Christian Nordqvist