Non-communicable diseases make history at UN Summit

Only once before in the history of the United Nations, has the General Assembly focused on a health issue. In 2001 the global response to HIV/AIDS was debated in a highly politically and publicly charged environment, for what was perceived to be the greatest immediate threat to human health at the time. The unanimously endorsed declaration that emerged from this meeting set out specific actions and targets for all UN member states. While challenges remain, such actions have substantially impacted on the global threat of HIV/AIDS.

Ten years later, on 19-20 September 2011, the General Assembly put the world’s leading causes of death and disability on the table at a High Level Meeting, and called on heads of state to stand tall against the onslaught of non-communicable disease.

Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan called it a watershed moment for the United Nations, an opportunity to “stop and reverse the non-communicable disease disaster”.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) claim 36 million lives annually, and principally includes cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and many related conditions that are, in fact, preventable.

On the world stage, NCDs are increasingly being recognised for the true villain they are. Robber of economic  growth, NCDs do not only claim nine million lives of people under the age of 60, but are responsible for nearly 80% of deaths in developing countries.

The George Institute’s Chief Scientific Officer, Associate Professor Anushka Patel, who attended the Assembly, said while it was important to raise the issue at the high profile event, clear action remains to be seen. She said the universally adopted Political Declaration that emerged unequivocally recognised the major threat to improved health outcomes and economic development posed by NCDs, especially in poorer countries. However, the WHO and UN member states must translate the political document into action plans with measurable and time limited outcomes before the UN meeting is declared a success.

“All speakers and attendees agreed and acknowledged the devastating effect noncommunicable diseases are having on the world. However, as negotiations were conducted in advance of the meeting, the political declaration is weaker than what is required to address this major health threat. What is missing are the specific targets that were so prominent in the political declaration that followed the HIV/AIDS summit 10 years ago.”

Associate Professor Patel acknowledges the positive outcomes of the summit, including a set of lengthy recommendations focused on reducing risk factors and creating health promoting environments, strengthening national policies and health systems, improved international collaboration, and research and development that is monitored and evaluated.

“Importantly, these recommendations recognise the need for a whole government, multi-sectorial approach to dealing with non-communicable diseases. A broad approach to dealing with these conditions is vital, and must extend into other areas such as food manufacturing, urban planning, environment, trade and agriculture”, Associate Professor Patel added.

The Summit recommendations also stress the support needed for research into the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases. Principal Director, Professor Robyn Norton says the recommendations clearly align with the work of The George Institute, “These recommendations endorse the work we continue to deliver, particularly in the area of healthcare innovation including the polypill and smartphone technologies”.