Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Global Public Health

The UN's Battle With NCDs

How Politics, Commerce, and Science Complicated the Fight Against an 'Invisible Epidemic'

The World Health Organization (WHO) calls it an "invisible epidemic." In the United States and now many parts of the developing world, the biggest killers are no longer infectious diseases, such as HIV and AIDS or malaria, but rather chronic conditions, such as heart and lung disease, cancer, and diabetes. Often the preventable result of unhealthy diets, tobacco, and alcohol use and a lack of physical activity, these non-communicable diseases, or NCDs, now account for two out of every three deaths worldwide.

Most surprising, perhaps, is that NCDs have rapidly gone from afflictions of the developed world to afflictions of the developing world. "Very many unhealthy habits have crept in," says Troy Torrington, of Guyana's mission to the United Nations. Those include a lack of exercise, the consumption of junk food, and the use of alcohol and tobacco promoted by aggressive sales and marketing campaigns. In sum, the lifestyles of people in the developing world are becoming more like those in the United States. This is not just an individual, or even a government-level, health issue. There is a global concern as well: The World Economic Forum has identified NCDs as one of the top threats to worldwide development, as they are driving up health-care costs, disabling workers, and exacting debilitating financial tolls on households.


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