Europe at forefront of global movement against major diseases

Baku, 13 September 2011

In 2011, the world is waking up to a major threat to health and to economies. European governments are defining the actions they must take to control it. Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes account for over 86% of deaths and 77% of the disease burden in the WHO European Region. In advance of a United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting on the subject next week, the health ministers of Europe are today set to discuss the core actions needed to control these diseases, in the face of the double burden of disease and financial crisis. They are addressing these issues at the sixty-first session of the WHO Regional Committee for Europe in Baku, Azerbaijan, following intensive discussions at The First Global Ministerial Conference on Healthy Lifestyles and Noncommunicable Disease Control, which took place in Moscow, Russian Federation on 28–29 April 2011.

“If we want to save lives, prevent disease and control health care costs, we can do it,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “The public health measures required have been discussed and studied for many years now. Some are familiar and proven, others are innovative. They cut across society, and include policies from many sectors and both the management of disease and the promotion of healthier behaviour: this is an excellent opportunity to work across the whole of government to improve health.”

There is a wide health gap across the European Region, with countries in the eastern part not yet showing the decreasing mortality seen in other parts of Europe. Additionally, the ageing of European populations increases the number of people living with these diseases, which presents a challenge to cash-strapped health systems. These trends impede productivity and economic development, and undermine the sustainability of health systems. Nevertheless, many countries are successfully lowering rates of heart disease and other NCDs, in some cases in the face of recession.

Cost-effective policies

In Baku, countries are looking at a raft of highly affordable and cost-effective measures that in some cases can benefit not only the public but also governments. They range from taxing tobacco and alcohol, eliminating trans fats in processed food and replacing them with polyunsaturated fats, reducing salt consumption, improving services for diabetes and heart disease, to improving detection and treatment of cancer. The action plan for implementation of the European Strategy for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases 2012–2016 has been developed with heavy input from, and major consultation with, countries, experts and partner organizations. It is accompanied by an action plan to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.

The interventions highlighted by the action plan are concrete and get results. Raised blood pressure is a major cause of cardiovascular disease, estimated to be responsible for over half of strokes, and 45% of coronary heart disease. There is overwhelming evidence that dietary salt is the major cause of raised blood pressure and that a reduction in salt intake lowers blood pressure, thereby reducing blood-pressure-related diseases. Several countries are already tackling the marketing of processed food, with its “hidden” sugars, salt and excessive saturated fats, especially to children. The European Region has a strong track record of reducing tobacco and alcohol use by taxation, but levels of taxes are still far too low in many countries, and ministers have signed up to promote progress in this area. Some countries, such as Denmark, have even introduced legislation to improve diets by taxing unhealthy food products. The action plan recommends that some of the funds raised from such taxes go towards health promotion programmes.

Economic gain

The rising cost to society of NCDs is well documented, a situation compounded by an ageing population. Dealing with NCDs and their risk factors takes a significant proportion of a country’s gross domestic product, while sufferers and their carers may face treatment costs, reduced income, early retirement and increased reliance on welfare support. Employers, and society as a whole, bear the burden of absenteeism, reduced productivity and increased employee turnover. The action plan needs to be realistic given that it is being implemented at a time of great need and scarce resources. The costs of inaction are potentially greater, however, owing to the escalating costs to health and social care systems from the increasing burden of NCDs.

Next week, a high-level meeting of the United Nations General Assembly will take place in New York on the prevention and control of NCDs. As a new chapter opens for the WHO European Region with the development of a new European policy for health, Health 2020, and a renewed commitment to public health, the time is right to sharpen the focus on NCDs and for efforts to address this challenge to become an integral part of gaining health in Europe.

For further information, please contact:

Dr Gauden Galea
Director, Division of Noncommunicable Diseases and Health Promotion
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +45 3917 1342
Mobile: +45 30450049

Viv Taylor Gee
Communications Adviser
WHO Regional Office for Europe
Tel.: +45 3917 1231
Mobile: +45 2272 3691