Q&A: Bloomberg's Kelly Henning talks NCDs ahead of high-level UN meeting

Kelly Henning, public health lead at Bloomberg Philanthropies. Photo by: Bloomberg Philanthropies / CC BY-NC-SA

NEW YORK — Noncommunicable diseases will have another moment in the spotlight at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly with the third high-level meeting addressing the issue since 2011.

The international focus may be key for instituting national policies and eliciting funding for NCDs — cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes, and chronic lung diseases — responsible for the majority of global deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has worked on NCDs since its start, with a focus in low- and middle-income countries and on issues including obesity prevention, cardiovascular health, and tobacco control. But two years ago, when Mike Bloomberg took on the role of global ambassador for NCDs, the organization wanted to do something new. It launched a new focus on cities that has resulted in 54 cities around the world implementing NCD initiatives tackling tobacco control, food policy, healthy environments, and even speeding.

Kelly Henning, the leader of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ public health program, spoke with Devex recently about what to expect from the high-level meeting on Thursday and what it takes to implement impactful work on NCDs at the national and city level.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the reasoning behind wanting to expand Bloomberg Philanthropies’ work on NCDs?

We work in a very data-driven way. If you look at the leading causes of death in the world, across all income levels, there's no question that NCDs really leads the list. About 70 percent of global deaths are from NCDs, and if you include injuries, which we also work on, it goes up to 80 percent.

Only 2 percent of global health dollars are going to NCDs. So there is a big gap, and there is also an awareness gap that many policymakers and governments are sort of entrenched in. It's not just very old people that are dying from these diseases — it's actually people in midlife who are struggling with diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, and are in the prime of their lives.

“We work in a very data-driven way. If you look at the leading causes of death in the world, across all income levels, there's no question that NCDs really leads the list.”

— Kelly Henning, head of Bloomberg Philanthropies' public health program

What are those conversations like when you're approaching a new country? How receptive are they to this work?

When we first started off in 2007 it was difficult to get countries' attention. Tobacco control has a global treaty that most governments have signed on to, which is fantastic, but there was a need to provide technical assistance and resources for governments to actually put that treaty into action. Now, we're seeing increased clamoring for help on other things.

I just did a multicountry tour of our focus countries and both ministries of health in Indonesia and the Philippines really wanted to talk about the sugary beverage tax and other things they could do on obesity. The conversation is definitely happening at a country level, but there's a need for the global, public health donor community, and others to catch up with that demand from countries.

So how does this look, in terms of shifting the tide regarding the organizations you're trying to partner with or fund?

We've developed initiatives where we have goals that we set out, and then we identify partners that can work with us in the various aspects that are needed — advocacy partners, research partners, partners with technical capacity, and then we identify which partners are very strong in the areas that we need. But we always insist that the funding flow to organizations in-country. For example, in our tobacco control program we have a small grants program, so countries can apply for two years of funding and also NGOs can apply from LMICs countries to work on the policies around tobacco control.

Are there other areas of work Bloomberg Philanthropies is pursuing that you feel are not getting the level of attention that they need? 

Yeah. We work very broadly around the world on road safety, but we also work on drowning prevention. There is a program in Bangladesh, where the leading cause of death among children under 5 years of age — outside of the neonatal period — is drowning and most people are completely unaware of that. We set up, with partners in Bangladesh, with daycare centers, to prevent young children from drowning in water that's near their home. We are going to do some work in Vietnam on similar initiatives, and we're looking at sub-Saharan Africa. It was such a striking curve in Bangladesh to see that drowning was really the leading cause of death in those cases, and there wasn't any programming around that.

Ripple Effect: The expansive impact of NCDs

While combating NCDs is a global task, regional contexts cause unique challenges. In this visual series, we explore a few of these challenges through the stories of health care workers and individuals living with NCDs in three different countries.

Thinking about UNGA and the high-level meeting coming up, are there particular areas that you're really going to be interested in watching?

I'm hoping we're going to see a lot of country commitments to very impactful, evidence-based interventions for NCDs. Our particular interest is on prevention, and that dovetails with the global interest in universal health coverage. In a way, you can really only do universal health coverage if you prevent as many of these chronic diseases as soon as possible. We think these things are very complimentary, so things like tobacco tax increases, comprehensive tobacco ad-bans, plain packaging for tobacco, advertising bans on junk foods to kids — these are the kind of commitments that we are really hoping will come out of [the] week.

NCDs. Climate change. Financing. Read more of Devex's coverage from the 73rd U.N. General Assembly here.

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

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.