The global burden of NCDs - our future public health legacy?

October 19, 2011
Ashok Malik

How do you measure the toll of premature deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like lung diseases, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer?

In September, New York hosted the United Nations summit on NCDs. Just before the New York event, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a study of the global cost of NCDs. It tabulated that five major NCDs – cardiovascular disease (CVD), chronic respiratory disease, cancer, diabetes and mental ill-health – could cost the world US$ 47 trillion between now and 2030. Take CVD alone. In 2010, CVD cost the world US$ 863 billion. By 2030, this is likely to rise to US$ 1.04 trillion.

Those are serious numbers. However, to families and friends of loved ones who succumb to these diseases, personal loss is immeasurable. Beyond the personal loss is the economic impact that premature deaths from these diseases can have on the economy and on businesses.

A hundred years ago, a major business corporation would have considered a tuberculosis outbreak or a Spanish influenza type epidemic its number one public health fear. Left unchecked, such an epidemic could have devastated a major manufacturing facility, sending hundreds of workers to hospital, if not killing them and could have a profound impact on that enterprise.

Perhaps equal in its impact is the loss of just one creative genius behind an innovative global enterprise that leaves the world without untold or unimagined technological advances that can change our lives.

This past month, one of the world’s leading technology companies lost its inspirational founder and creative genius to cancer. Losing Steve Jobs to cancer is a tragedy for his friends and family but losing the genius of Steve Jobs is a loss to the world and underscores the unacceptable toll from largely preventable non-communicable diseases.

Steve Jobs left his mark on the world but perhaps his unfortunate and untimely passing will also serve to bring into focus the societal impacts of non-communicable disease, the prevention imperative, and the need for early testing and diagnosis.

It has been just a month, since New York hosted the United Nations summit on NCDs. This was only the second UN meeting of this size devoted to a health issue. The previous one, in 2001, lead to the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. What will be the legacy of the NCDs summit of 2011? And will greater awareness of the premature loss of creative geniuses like Steve Jobs contribute to that legacy? 

Ashok Malik is a journalist writing primarily on public policy.  Ashok is based in Delhi India and his columns and articles have appeared in several newspapers over the last 20 years.