10 July 2014

Africa: Health Officials Weigh National Efforts to Tackle Non-Communicable Diseases, As UN Launches New Report

With world leaders gathered today in New York for the United Nations General Assembly's review of efforts made since 2011 in controlling non-communicable diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease, the Organizations' top health official launched a new report that shows progress at the national level has been insufficient and uneven.

On the margins of the Assembly meeting, UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan along with a panel of regional health experts launched the Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) Country Profiles 2014, taking stock of progress made within countries since the adoption of the 2011 UN Political Declaration on NCDs.

Delivering opening remarks, Dr. Chan said the report provides an overview of developments including that half of the world's countries now have a plan and a budget to address diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease and that the number of countries monitoring the main six risk factors - such as tobacco use, unhealthy diet an, physical inactivity and harmful use of alcohol - has doubled since 2010.

In September 2011, world leaders formally recognized non-communicable diseases as a major threat to health, economies, and societies and placed them high on the development agenda. The Political Declaration adopted by the Assembly gave WHO a leadership role, along with several time-bound assignments.

The report launched today outlines progress made over the past three years on a country-by-country basis. The national snapshots include estimates on the current burden and recent trends in NCD deaths and risk factors alongside data on the country's capacity to address challenges.

More than 190 Governments have agreed to the WHO global action plan to halt the epidemic and reduce premature deaths from non-communicable diseases by 25 per cent by 2025. Pointing out several challenges, Dr. Chan urged Governments to act. Policy incoherence undermines the influence and the credibility of national authority, she said. Once Governments sign up to international treaties they have to honour them. If there is no policy coherence, "you give space for other entities like the UN and WHO to be confused by you".

Health experts from Mongolia, Chile, Kuwait, and South Africa also shared ways their nations and regions are scaling up action on non-communicable diseases and sharing lessons learned. Dr. Udval Natsag, Minister of Health of Mongolia, said her country recently introduced a cancer early detection programme.

She also pointed out that almost 100 percent of the population was covered by primary health care. Nationwide public awareness campaigns on various health risk factors including on high blood pressure and tobacco use were also established.

Dr. Jamie Burrows Oyarzun, Chile's Under Secretary of Public Health shared several laws his country recently enacted, including on prohibiting the use of tobacco in certain common areas, drinking while under the influence of alcohol, and on monitoring marketing of fast food.

Referring to the law against drinking and driving "wildly successful" he said the legislation has reduced by 30 per cent the number people dying in drunken driving accidents. Yet, improvements were needed in other areas including tobacco consumption. "We have to go further," he stressed, adding that it is not enough to appeal to the behaviours of people. Rather, countries must transform social norms.

The Under Secretary Health Minister of Kuwait, Dr. Khaled Al Sahlawi, said his country provides free health services for its 3.5 million citizens, costing the Health Ministry billions of dollars. Kuwait's life expectancy has reached to 75 years and infant death is low. Alcohol is forbidden in Kuwait, and various health services including mammograms are readily available.

"Our aim is get rid of this epidemic," he said, stressing the importance of learning how other countries solve the problem, because [non-communicable diseases] are not just a health problem but rather multi-sectoral issue, which must involve ministries of health, finance and education. "We should all sit together to solve the problem," he said, also encouraging countries to spend more money on health education, for which barely any funds are allocated.

Next, Melvin Freeman of South Africa's Ministry of Health said that there is no country in the world that can say "we have enough resources to do what we have to do". Striking a balance between communicable and non-communicable disease prevention was critically important. South Africa implemented its own plan with 10 particular targets to be reached by 2020.

They include regulations on transfats and salty foods, as well as a major education campaign with radio and TV. His country had also recently introduced the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, which 330,000 girls will receive this year. Still major challenges persisted including the monitoring and surveying of progress which "lacks rigor", he said.

Johan Carlson, Director-General of the Swedish Public Health Agency pointed to his country's strategy to combat tobacco and alcohol use, introduce HPV vaccinations and treat Crohn's disease. It was also important to address the disparity between socioeconomic groups as they become more prevalent. Wider societal involvement was key to use the full potential of the population.

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