Non-communicable diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer are responsible for nearly three-quarters of deaths worldwide but are often “overlooked and underfunded” because few understand their true impact, according to a new report from the World Health Organization published Wednesday, which urges countries to tackle the issue with proven and cost-effective interventions that are readily available.
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are one of the most significant public health and development challenges of the century and kill more than infectious diseases due to inaction, the WHO said in the report, which was released at the UN general assembly in New York.
NCDs are responsible for the premature death of some 17 million people each year and kill someone under the age of 70 every two seconds, the report said.
The vast majority of these premature deaths, 86%, are in low and middle income countries, the report found, and many could have been “prevented with investment in proven, cost-effective interventions,” saidU.S. billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who is the WHO’s ambassador for NCDs.
While all UN member states have committed to slashing premature deaths from NCDs by a third by 2030—it is one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals—few nations are on track to achieve this, the report said.
While the risk factors of many NCDs are well-understood—tobacco use and unhealthy diets each kill more than 8 million each year, alcohol consumption another 1.7 million and physical inactivity 830,000, the WHO estimates—the report said little is being done because many simply do not understand the scale of the problem.
The organization estimates at least 39 million NCD deaths could be prevented by 2030 if “every country were to adopt the interventions that are known to work.”
41 million people. That’s how many people NCDs kill worldwide each year, the WHO estimates. Cardiovascular diseases—a collection of diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels—are the world’s biggest killer and are responsible for 17.9 million deaths a year, the report found. The other leading NCDs, some of the world’s top killers, are cancer (9.3 million deaths each year), chronic respiratory diseases (4.1 million) and diabetes (2 million). Beyond deaths, each NCD can have a huge impact on the quality of life for those affected and also make them more vulnerable to other ailments. This was illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO said, where people living with NCDs faced worse outcomes than those without. Covid has been the third-leading cause of death for the past two years, behind heart disease and cancer.
Public health advances in recent decades mean infectious, or communicable, diseases no longer dominate the leading causes of premature death around the world. The issue, which has been well known in many affluent nations for decades, is now reaching worrying levels in fast-developing countries like China, though these health emergencies are often more hidden than outbreaks of infectious disease. The invisible nature of NCDs is illustrated by the fact that they generally do not receive funding and public health effort in line with their impact, despite much more being known about what causes them. This holds true across all countries, not just less affluent ones, and the report says all countries could improve. It stresses that big gains can be made with relatively little investment in NCD prevention and treatment. “The data paint a clear picture,” the WHO report said. “The problem is that the world isn’t looking at it.”
WHO chief Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization had renewed Bloomberg’s appointment as its global ambassador for NCDs and injuries for another two years. Bloomberg, a billionaire who co-founded financial information and media company Bloomberg LP in 1981 and served 12 years as the mayor of New York City, was first appointed to the role in 2016. “As we continue to respond to this pandemic and prepare for the next, we have seen the critical importance of addressing a major risk factor in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths – noncommunicable diseases,” Bloomberg said. NCDs “are the world’s biggest silent killers – but they can often be prevented with investment in proven, cost-effective interventions,” he added.
$76.8 billion. That’s Bloomberg’s estimated net worth, according to Forbes’ real-time tracker. That makes him the 13th richest person in the world at the time of writing. Bloomberg has donated billions to charity, a great deal of which has gone towards initiatives designed to address risk factors driving NCDs, such as reducing tobacco use.
By Robert Hart, Forbes Staff