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Voices / Column

Whatever the motive, world action is welcomed in the fight against noncommunicable diseases

Saxtons River

Sometimes, if you live long enough, you just might see action on important issues you tried raising long ago.

One of those issues for me, coming from my past life as a health educator, is the need to address the devastating impact of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases in low- and middle-income countries.

As a women’s health advocate, I was particularly keen to see NCDs tackled, because they cause more than half of all female deaths in many countries and often they can be controlled, if not prevented.

The emphasis on women’s reproductive health for decades in the developing world — usually referring to safe motherhood and family planning — was frustrating for those of us who were fighting for a woman’s right to health care throughout her lifespan and not just during her mothering years.

Now, at last, there is a call from governments, the United Nations, and civil society leaders for a new approach to women’s health care and to addressing NCDs for everyone’s benefit.

* * *

In September, at the first-ever United Nations’ high-level meeting on NCDs, a stark warning was issued: Unless the prevention and treatment of these diseases are integrated into current health programs and policies, especially those aimed at specific risks to women, decades of progress on women’s health — and therefore the health of communities — could be seriously undermined.

At the meeting, a panel of global health experts chaired by UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro, outlined existing challenges related to rising rates of obesity, alcohol abuse, and tobacco use, as well as lack of exercise and poor nutrition.

These practices, which often lead to so-called “diseases of affluence,” especially affect women, millions of whom are at risk of chronic illness, disability, and premature death. (Currently, 50,000 women die daily of NCDs.)

But these challenges in health behavior also relate to poverty.

“We have to ask some tough questions,” Migiro said. “We have to look hard at poverty and recognize that too many women are at a greater risk [of NCDs] simply because they are poor.”

In March, UN Women, a newly empowered UN agency headed by former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, released a first-of-its-kind report focusing on the specific needs and challenges of girls and women at risk of or living with NCDs.

The report addresses the primary causes of NCDs, including poverty, urbanization, gender disparity, poor education, economic inequities, and lack of access to health services. It also underscores the enormous strain such diseases place on health systems and national economies.

Underscoring the importance of addressing NCDs, representatives from nearly 100 countries signed an online petition, “Women for a Healthy Future,” in time for the UN’s September meeting.

The petition asked government and business leaders to act quickly and decisively in changing policies and practices that leave women and children vulnerable to NCDs. The effort was orchestrated by a dozen organizations “in the spirit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s ‘Every Woman, Every Child’ agenda.”

* * *

Jordan’s Princess Dina Mired is a strong supporter of efforts aimed at deal with NCDs.

“We have to impart on world leaders the need for consolidating the political will to decisively address the harsh disparity of NCD treatment between the developed and the developing world,” she says. “The chance to live should not be an accident of geography or demographics.”

The princess is right, of course, but I’ve been around long enough to know that “political will” is as hard to come by as clean water in many of the world’s rural villages.

I also know that UN meetings are often a hot-air forum for the cognoscenti, even with leaders like Michelle Bachelet at the helm. Words such as “decisive” and “action” fly around the room like ethereal butterflies with short lives.

Still, one can hope that something concrete will come from this initiative, if for no other reason than that it makes economic sense — which, sadly, is often how social issues must be framed.

For now, I’m just glad that some people in high places finally thought dealing with NCDs was a good idea.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #125 (Wednesday, November 2, 2011).

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