The UN's Battle With NCDs

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

Puffing away in China. (SpAvAAi / flickr)

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.

Read more at at Foreign Affairs' Special Report: Global Public Health.

Although the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria has attracted rock-star advocates and billions of dollars in funding in the past decade, efforts to fight NCDs are much less visible. According to a recent report, less than three percent of the nearly $22 billion spent in 2007 on global development assistance for health was dedicated to NCDs. If this week's high-level UN meeting on NCDs is any indication, that is unlikely to change anytime soon. A hard look at the negotiations that made the meeting in New York possible is a study in the way politics, commerce, and science can combine

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