The NCDs fight awaits data, pushes need to change perceptions

By Jenny Lei Ravelo 27 May 2016

A patient has their vital signs checked by a health worker in Bolu, Turkey. Addressing people's lack of physical activity, unhealthy diets and use of tobacco is key in tackling noncommunicable diseases, according to the World Health Organization. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The global fight toward the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases is not faring well — at least according to the latest World Health Organization report on countries’ progress against the nine voluntary targets member states adopted years ago on the disease.

The data, under annex 3 of the report and presented during this week’s 69th World Health Assembly in Geneva, hardly shows any movement from 2010 to 2014 on countries’ progress in terms of reductions in overall mortality rates from the four deadliest NCDs: cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, cancer and diabetes.

There is also no available data on most behavioral risk factors such as physical activity, tobacco use and salt intake; nor on the availability of quality, safe and affordable medicines and technologies to prevent and treat major NCDs, according to the WHO report. Data on country comparable estimates of adult and adolescent physical activity are still under development, and won’t be available until November 2016.

Lack of data makes it hard for countries to assess progress; at the same time, the meager progress for the items that do have supporting data means advancement is slow in the fight against NCDs, which account for 38 million deaths each year, according to WHO.

The health aid agency notes one key measure to reduce the occurrence of NCDs is to lessen its risk factors, but there is a general perception that these risk factors — physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, tobacco use — are more of an individual responsibility than an issue to be addressed by governments.

“There is a general thinking that if you’re getting sick because of what you’re eating, it’s your responsibility and therefore you need to pay for it,” Dr. Susan Mercado, director of NCDs and Health through the Life-Course at the regional office of WHO in Western Pacific, told Devex.

But the WHO director argued that perception needs to change.

“Many of the reasons why people eat what they eat is because that’s the only thing they can eat, and that’s not their responsibility. It’s because of the unavailability of food, or healthy food is too expensive,” she said, referring to the Philippine context.

But the cost and the availability of food is not the only issue Mercado said is beyond the remit of individuals. In the Philippines, for example, most cities are not conducive for walking, unlike in Japan, where she lived for a few years.

“In our case, we’re stuck in traffic, sitting down, and inhale all the pollution,” she said.

Governments could also exercise more political muscle when it comes to completely banning smoking indoors for example — if not for smokers, at least for people who inhale secondhand smoke. The medical doctor notes that the exposure of a person working in a bar where people are allowed to smoke is similar to someone who has finished a half pack of cigarettes.

“Are we saying that people are no longer responsible? No. But we’re saying the environment has become unhealthy,” she said.

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About the author

Jenny lei ravelo 400x400
Jenny Lei Ravelo@JennyLeiRavelo

Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex senior reporter based in Manila. Since 2011, she has covered a wide range of development and humanitarian aid issues, from leadership and policy changes at DfID to the logistical and security impediments faced by international and local aid responders in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries in Africa and Asia. Her interests include global health and the analysis of aid challenges and trends in sub-Saharan Africa.


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