Next week, global leaders will meet at the United Nations to take on some of the world’s greatest killers: cancer, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, heart disease, and stroke. The UN High-Level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases on September 19–20, has the potential to finally address these leading causes of death and disability, which until now have been largely ignored.
Yet when we wake up on Sept. 21, how much will have changed? Will there be a new Global Fund to fight noncommunicable diseases (NCDs)? Will key stakeholders, such as those involved in urban planning, agriculture, trade and current global health priorities be as engaged as they need to be to realize ambitious goals of measurably reducing disease? Will the public even know what an NCD is — even though more than 60 percent of deaths worldwide are from noncommunicable diseases, the majority from cardiovascular disease?
The answer to all of these questions is: not yet. September 21 will be the start of the real work. The problems of NCDs are complex, but we have many opportunities to alter the course of what has become a global crisis.
There are a number of concrete steps that countries and health systems can take immediately to strengthen their commitment to reducing noncommunicable diseases. They can ratify and implement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the world’s first public health treaty. Many countries already have the makings of NCD plans in existing cancer plans, tobacco control programs and strategies for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They may also have specific programs to address respiratory disease, mental health and other issues. Health systems can make essential drugs, such as aspirin and statins, available immediately and at a low cost because many are off patent.
As leading researchers and public health officials said in an April 2011 Lancet article, “An effective response to NCDs requires government leadership and coordination of all relevant sectors and stakeholders, reinforced through international cooperation.”
In the end, we will need to make compromises and learn to share resources with people and institutions with whom we are not accustomed to collaborating. We will need to delay gratification and risk unpopularity in some of our choices. And we will likely not see the payoff in our lifetimes. But with time, effort and investment, we will see results.