Ahead of UNGA, over 50 health experts sign letter for action on NCDs

An empty United Nations General Assembly Hall. Photo by: Natalie Maguire / CC BY-SA

BANGKOK — A powerhouse cast of United Nations, civil society, and academic leaders have come together to call for bold, practical action to reduce the global epidemic of noncommunicable diseases.

Eight-point agenda for member state high-level meeting negotiators:

1. Assign accountability at the highest political level.
2. Prioritize improving fiscal policies.
3. Mobilize additional financial resources.
4. Regulate the commercial determinants.
5. Address the growing impact of pollution and urbanization on NCDs, injuries, and mental health.
6. Support meaningful civil society engagement.
7. Uphold principles of equity, human rights, and gender equality.
8. Foster independent accountability.

More than 50 health experts co-signed a letter published in The Lancet yesterday, which provided an eight-point agenda to accelerate progress ahead of the United Nations General Assembly High-level Meeting on the prevention and control of NCDs in September.

At the top of the agenda is assigning accountability at the highest political levels. This is key to unlocking financing for NCDs, yet something previous high-level meetings have failed to do, according to many NGO leaders.

Attendance of heads of government or state at the 2014 high-level meeting was sparse. Three years before that, the meeting was a “lost opportunity” to galvanize support for the creation of a platform to finance NCD work worldwide, José Luis Castro, president and CEO of Vital Strategies and executive director at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, told Devex in February.

This time, health experts are determined to weigh in on best practices that should define the strong political commitments they hope will emerge from the 2018 meeting.  

“Our eight-point agenda can turn commitment into action,” Castro said in a release issued Friday.

“It relies on policies proven to push industry to alter practices and to persuade consumers to modify behavior. As negotiators release the ‘zero draft,’ now is the time to incorporate these practical steps into the political declaration,” he said.

NCDs, according to World Health Organization statistics, kill an estimated 41 million people worldwide, accounting for 71 percent of all deaths globally. Fifteen million of those deaths occur among those aged between 30 and 69 years old, covering mostly people of productive age.

While better diagnosis and treatment of NCDs may help to reduce disability and death, policies that focus on prevention are what experts stress in the letter. The document calls for the 2018 political declaration to focus on concrete measures that countries can adopt to reduce the NCD burden — such as taxes on unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sugary snacks.

Rather than create new vertical structures, the NCD agenda should be integrated into national Sustainable Development Goal plans, and governments must better regulate the alcohol, processed, and ultra-processed foods industries, the letter reads.

As the burden of NCDs grows higher, global health leaders are hopeful the upcoming meeting will prove a turning point to move from declarations to action.  

“We need a declaration that commits to practical measures to attain the ambitious targets the international community has previously agreed,” said Helen Clark, another signatory to The Lancet letter.

“As a former prime minister and minister of health, I know that we won’t see sufficient progress until heads of government assign responsibilities across ministries to deal with the drivers of NCDs, until governments adopt adequate legislative approaches to curb NCDs’ commercial determinants, and until NCDs are addressed in universal health coverage programs.

For more coverage of NCDs, visit the Taking the Pulse series here.

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Bangkok, she covers disaster and crisis response, innovation, women’s rights, and development trends throughout Asia. Prior to her current post, she covered leadership, careers, and the USAID implementer community from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.