It’s been a trend developing for a number of years: the rising prominence of chronic disease across the globe. Where diseases like heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer were once the main health concerns of more affluent countries, they’ve now taken over top spots in developing nations as well – signaling both a shift away from infectious diseases (a good thing) as well as a move toward many unhealthy western habits that promote chronic disease (a bad thing).
According to a new report by the World Health Organization, noncommunicable diseases (NCDs):
“killed 63% of people who died worldwide in 2008. This equals 36 million and nearly 80% of these NCD deaths – equivalent to 29 million people – occurred in low- and middle-income countries, dispelling the myth that such conditions are mainly a problem of affluent societies.”
In developing countries, especially, close to a third of people dying from these chronic diseases are under 60 and in their most productive working years. The cost of treating people with chronic diseases combined with the losses in incomes and productivity by people affected by the diseases delivers a tough blow to the health and economic systems of countries already overburdened.
This new WHO report and those that preceded it, bring into sharp relief the continued problem of income inequality facing global health. The huge income gaps that continue to exist both within and across countries mean that poorer populations now suffering from chronic diseases will die from these diseases at younger ages and in greater numbers than their more affluent counterparts.
Most chronic conditions can be prevented or well controlled with a combination of good health care access, healthy lifestyle, and supportive public policy. Yet, the poorer one is, the less likely one is to have access to, or be able to benefit from, such things. Even within the affluent United States, groups with less income and education smoke more, weigh more, and suffer greater rates of death from heart disease, diabetes, and select cancers.
Narrowing gaps in income both within and between countries will go a long way to combating the new emergence of chronic disease worldwide.
WHO: Global status repot on noncommunicable diseases 2010