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Critics see lost chance on fighting diseases

Hundreds of organizations and experts described the third United Nations high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases as a "squandered" opportunity.

UNITED NATIONS (AN) — Hundreds of organizations and experts described the third U.N. high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases as a "squandered" opportunity to boost global financing and commitments for reducing millions of premature or early deaths.

The U.N. General Assembly's September 27 meeting called attention to the prevalence of noncommunicable diseases, or NCDs, mainly cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.

They are the most common cause of death and disability worldwide, leading to about 7-in-10 deaths. Low- and middle-income countries and the poorest and most vulnerable populations worldwide are the hardest hit, according to the NCD Alliance, a Geneva-based network of 2,000 international and other organizations in 170 nations.

The alliance was pleased with some elements of the meeting, notably what it called "a display of leadership" from several countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Region.

The political declaration produced by the meeting seeks increases in funding, treatment and prevention and, mirroring language contained in the U.N.'s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, committed nations to reduce the number of NCD-related deaths by one third by 2030.

But the alliance said the declaration overall had "vague and ambiguous commitments" and a lack of accountability. It noted that the next high-level meeting on NCDs is not planned until seven years from now, a timeframe that brings the risk of procrastination.

"Governments cannot afford to continue sleepwalking into a sick future," the alliance said on behalf of almost 300 organizations. "Governments have squandered the opportunity of this [high-level meeting] to close the financing gap for NCDs with real commitments for the health of their people."

The U.N.'s deputy secretary-general Amina Mohammed said the meeting was timely because of globalization, longer life expectancies, climate change and urbanization. Every year, she said, NCDs cause millions of premature deaths — and 85 per cent are in developing countries.

"These diseases rob people of the ability to earn a living and fuel a cycle of poverty that continues to impoverish families and communities," said Mohammed, a former environment minister for Nigeria. "The costs of NCDs are enormous — not only to the people affected, but also to national budgets, health systems, and the global economy ... These deaths are tragic, and they are avoidable."

Leading up to the meeting, the World Health Organization reported in June that governments must do more to reduce premature or early deaths from NCDs such as mental disorders and obesity.

WHO's report, which provided the basis for the General Assembly-hosted NCDS meeting, said the world faces a preventable health epidemic of NCDS that kill 41 million people a year, or 71% of all deaths globally. Fifteen million of those deaths occur between the ages of 30 and 70.

A preventable epidemic

Many of the causes of NCDs are preventable and range from smoking, injuries from car accidents and drowning to poor diet, sedentary lifestyles and inadequate maternal or obstetric care. WHO said just 1% of health aid to poorer or middle-income nations helps fight NCDs.

Some of the solutions include packaging tobacco products with grim warning labels; reducing the amounts of sugar and salt that food and drink companies put in their products; and increasing the customer demand for so-called health and wellness services and products.

In Brazil, for example, where the majority of the population is overweight, its government decided to take on new middle-class tastes for junk food by releasing a new food guide in 2015 that promotes eating more whole foods and traditional diets.

The commission that prepared WHO's 44-page report presented it at Geneva on June 1 to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former chair of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership.

The main part of WHO's global strategy against NCDs is a cluster of cost-effective measures or “best buys," such as tobacco taxation, salt reduction, cervical screening and use of aspirin. But the political declaration from the meeting did not include additional funding or a proposed financing mechanism to raise money.

"The absence of strong language on implementing the best buys, which focus on taxation, regulation and legislation, is a glaring omission from the document," the alliance said. "This reflects interference and undue influence of health-harmful industries over a few countries who were prepared to shamelessly block progress for all."