Speaking in Luanda recently (October 18th), WHO Regional Director for Africa Luis Gomes Sambo confirmed that special attention would be paid to chronic diseases at the 62nd Regional Committee Session, to be held in November. The event, also to be held in Luanda, will bring together the Health Ministers of the 46 states constituting African membership to the World Health Organization and a number of other important delegates and representatives. The objective of the event: to discuss, implement and maintain progressive action on African health related issues.
But why do chronic diseases need to receive special attention?
For those that didn’t know, chronic diseases including cancer, diabetes and heart disease are not restricted to the high income, economically developed countries*. In fact, 80% of the 36 million deaths caused by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) each year are from low and middle-income countries. That’s 28.8 million people every year! Whilst illnesses such as Malaria, AIDS and Tuberculosis have become synonymous with African development programmes, it’s vital that non-communicable diseases, like cancer and heart disease also get discussed at every stage of the development process.
So what can realistically be achieved at the meetings?
The Health Ministers and other representatives are set with a difficult task at the Committee Session, which starts on the 19th November. Curbing the rise in chronic diseases in Africa does not have an overnight solution, so it would be naïve to assume that we’re likely to see anything close to an instant transformation.
For me, raising awareness and approaching the disease risk factors head on would provide a positive start. By risk factors, I mean the responsible causes like tobacco use, physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet. Some of the most alarming statistics lie in tobacco use figures, particularly amongst children. As an extreme example, the prevalence of tobacco use in the Gambia for those aged between 13 and 15 is 34% amongst males and 37% amongst females. Whilst these numbers are at the high end of the data range, it is not unusual to see the figures among adolescents above 25%**. Therefore, I would like to see greater importance placed on education at the local level, not just on tobacco usage but also on other risk factors that look to prevent detrimental health practices and cultures from an early age.
The United Nations already has a framework in place for the prevention and control of NCDs following a specifically organized General Assembly meeting in September 2011. The framework included a number of 2012 targets, so it will be interesting to discover whether these targets have been met, and if not, whether visible progress has been made.
Progress is being made
Skeptics out there will say that the language of ‘frameworks’, ‘declarations’ and ‘targets’ is just another example of United Nations bureaucratic lingo. Whilst in some respects I agree, being of the belief that nothing speaks ‘progress’ better than cold, hard statistical evidence, the fact that the issue of NCDs in Africa is being discussed at the highest level shows that we’re in a better position that we have been in previous years.
- The 62nd Session of the World Health Organization’s Regional Committee for Africa will take place from the 19th to the 23rd November 2012. Be sure to check back following the event for my follow up blog post.
*(for a more detailed overview of this, and other common chronic disease related myths, take a look at Ebele M’s blog entry from last month - http://www.engageafricafoundation.org/blog/view/busting-some-myths-about-chronic-diseases )
**(see World Health Organization 2012 health statistics for an individual country breakdown - http://www.who.int/healthinfo/EN_WHS2012_Full.pdf )
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own, and don’t necessarily represent those of the staff or directors of EAF.