WHO targets non-communicable 'lifestyle' diseases

Blood pressure check
Image caption Regular health checks can detect problems early

The World Health Organization has set out a plan to tackle non-communicable diseases like heart disease, which now pose a greater global burden than infectious diseases.

"Lifestyle-related" diseases are now the leading cause of death worldwide, killing 36 million people a year.

Much of the toll is in low and middle-income countries and this is where efforts must be focused, says WHO.

It suggests affordable steps governments should take.

The list includes measures that target the population as a whole, such as excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, smoke-free indoor workplaces and public places, as well as campaigns to reduce salt and dangerous fats in foods.

Other tactics focus on individuals and include screening and treatment for cardiovascular disease and cervical cancer, as well as immunisation against hepatitis B to prevent liver cancer.

WHO estimates the total cost for adopting these strategies in all low-and middle-income countries would be $11.4bn (£7.2bn) per year.

In comparison, the cumulative costs of heart diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer and diabetes in poorer countries are expected to top $7 trillion (£4.4 trillion) in 2011-2025, an average of nearly $500bn (£316bn) a year, according to the World Economic Forum.

Many countries have already adopted the public health interventions, and have seen a marked reduction in disease incidence and mortality.

'Best buys'

WHO monitored the progress of 38 countries taking steps to address cardiovascular disease at both the population and individual level over the space of a decade. All recorded a substantial decrease in exposure to risk, incidence of disease and death toll.

Dr Ala Alwan, assistant director-general for non-communicable diseases and mental health at WHO, said: "The challenge to these countries is tremendous, but this study proves that there are affordable steps all governments can take to address non-communicable diseases.

"The new tool will help countries with limited resources work out what the 'best buys' are and what they will cost.

"Implementing them would save literally millions of lives over the next 15 years."

Non-communicable diseases killed more than 36 million people in 2008. Cardiovascular diseases were responsible for 48% of these deaths, cancers 21%, chronic respiratory diseases 12% and diabetes 3%.

Men and women in low-income countries are around three times more likely to die of non-communicable diseases before the age of 60 than in high-income countries.

Global leaders are meeting for a United Nations high-level conference on non-communicable diseases.

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