Eat healthy to reduce the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs)

The first WHO Global status report on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) launched on 27th April, confirms that NCDs are the leading killer today, with 36.1 million people dying from heart disease, strokes, chronic lung diseases, cancers and diabetes in 2008. In other words, NCDs killed 63% of people who died worldwide in 2008. Nearly 80% of these deaths (equivalent to 29 million people) occurred in low- and middle-income countries, dispelling the myth that such conditions are mainly a problem of affluent societies. Without any serious action, the NCD epidemic is projected to kill 52 million people annually by 2030. The report forms a key component of the 2008-2013 Action Plan, which was endorsed by the 2008 World Health Assembly for the implementation of the WHO Global Strategy on the Prevention and Control of non-communicable diseases.

While launching the report during the WHO Global Forum meet on addressing the challenge of non communicable diseases, in Moscow, WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan said, "The rise of chronic non communicable diseases presents an enormous challenge. They deliver a two-punch blow to development. They cause billions of dollars in losses of national income, and they push millions of people below the poverty line, each and every year. For some countries, it is no exaggeration to describe the situation as an impending disaster; a disaster for health, for society, and most of all for national economies."

The Global status report provides global, regional and country-specific statistics, evidence, and experiences needed to launch a more forceful response to the growing threat posed by chronic non communicable diseases. Cardiovascular diseases account for most NCD deaths, or 17 million people annually, followed by cancer (7.6 million), respiratory disease (4.2 million), and diabetes (1.3 million). These four groups of diseases account for around 80% of all NCD deaths, and share four common risk factors: tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and poor diets.

According to the 2005 WHO statistics, deaths due to chronic diseases in India accounted for 53% of all deaths. Out of these 28% were from cardiovascular disease, 8% from cancer, 8% from other chronic disease, 7% from chronic respiratory disease, and 2% from diabetes. WHO projects that over the next 10 years deaths from chronic diseases will increase by 18%, and most markedly deaths due to diabetes will escalate by 35%. As a result our country stands to lose 237 billion dollars from premature deaths due to heart disease, stroke and diabetes. And yet, at least 80% of such premature deaths due to heart disease, strokes and type2 diabetes, and 40% of cancer deaths can be prevented through a healthy diet, regular exercise and tobacco control. All these measures cost next to nothing by way of financial investment. And yet the gains would be immense. What is needed is the will to lead a disease free life, by controlling our dietary habits and avoiding a sedentary life style.

This is exactly what the report tries to achieve by providing a baseline to countries for raising the priority of NCD control, improving disease surveillance, enabling governments to take comprehensive action against the diseases, and protecting countries, particularly developing, from the burden of the epidemic. It provides a road map for reversing the epidemic (with special attention to low- and middle-income countries which are the worst sufferers) by strengthening national and global monitoring and surveillance, scaling up evidence based measures that can save millions of lives and reduce spiralling health-care costs. Such measures include implementing the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, reducing levels of salt in foods, stopping the inappropriate marketing of unhealthy food and non-alcoholic beverages to children, and controlling  harmful alcohol use.

In the words of Professor Judith Mackay, Senior Advisor, World Lung Foundation: "We don't need a scientific or genetic breakthrough to reduce the single biggest cause of NCD deaths; all we need is a commitment from every country to implement sensible cost-effective tobacco control policies. Millions of deaths could be prevented by increasing tobacco taxes, making public places 100% smoke-free, educating people on the harms of tobacco and eliminating tobacco advertising and sponsorship. Governments must act more aggressively to turn the tide against NCDs."

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also serves as the Director of CNS Diabetes Media Initiative (CNS-DMI).She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP. Email:, website:

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