Member States urged to ramp up fight against noncommunicable diseases

Ahmed Hallyyev

Governments in WHO Member States must implement existing policies and set ambitious goals at national level if they are to live up to their commitment to reduce premature deaths from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) in the WHO European Region. That was the message from speakers and participants at the plenary session of the WHO European High-level Conference on Noncommunicable Diseases held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan on 9–10 April 2019.

Reducing premature deaths from NCDs by one third by 2030

Under Sustainable Development Goal target 3.4, governments have committed to reduce deaths from NCDs by one third by 2030, to prevent people from dying too young. The actions countries can take to achieve this target were the focus of the conference, attended by 44 countries from across the Region.

“We’re talking about the lives of people who are being exposed to real risk factors and suffering from real disease, disability and early death, so we must do more. This is about societal and economic development that is being hindered by NCDs,” said Dr Bente Mikkelsen, Director of the Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Promoting Health through the Life-course, WHO/Europe.

If the Region is to reach its target of reducing premature deaths from NCDs, it will be essential to reduce cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases. The WHO “Best Buys”, a set of policy interventions focused on lowering the rate of NCDs, are known to be effective and include measures to help curb the consumption of alcohol and tobacco, reduce salt and sugar intake, eliminate trans fats in food and promote physical activity. In addition to taking strong action to address the major risk factors, reaching key targets will also necessitate new approaches and forms of collaboration.

“We all know that many NCDs are caused by factors outside of our control: exposure to secondary smoke; unhealthy foods high in sugar, salt and trans fats; crowded urban development impeding physical activity. The list of factors outside of the control of the Ministry of Health is long,” said Nurmuhammet Amannepesov, Turkmenistan’s Minister of Health and Medical Industry. “In order to effectively prevent and control NCDs, we must focus our efforts on the whole-of-government approach and strengthen our multisectoral collaboration.”

Indeed, health and social protection systems have played an essential role in addressing NCDs through an inclusive life-course approach, but more can be done.

“We also need to use gender approaches and settings like schools, cities and prisons throughout the life-course for integrative and comprehensive action,” said Dr Piroska Östlin, Acting WHO Regional Director for Europe and Director of the Division of Policy and Governance for Health and Well-being. “By ensuring access to preventive health services through all stages of life, by improving health literacy and early detection, we can get a high return on investment, save money on costly treatment, and help to prevent and reduce disabilities in later life.”

New partnerships, new tools

Adding air pollution and mental health to the 4 NCD risk factors and 4 diseases usually highlighted brings new opportunities and opens the door for new partnerships. Looking at these opportunities through the lens of gender, health literacy and migration further broadens the scope for taking effective action.

Air pollution automatically brings new partners from across environment, transport and planning sectors, while mental health offers a very tangible way to rethink our approach to health systems. Emphasizing mental health also encourages stakeholders to consider more holistic concepts of health and to deepen their understanding of other determinants of mental illness, such as social determinants.

One of the most complex and challenging areas of collaboration for Member States to consider is working with the private sector and industry. While this may present opportunities, Member States will need to work together to safeguard against conflicts of interest when setting agendas and policies.