Riding in Goa, India, 2004 (Matt Watts / Courtesy Flickr)
When most people in developed countries think of the biggest health challenges confronting the developing world, they envision a small boy in a rural, dusty village beset by an exotic parasite or bacterial blight. But increasingly, that image is wrong. Instead, it is the working-age woman living in an urban slum, suffering from diabetes, cervical cancer, or stroke -- noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) that once confronted wealthy nations alone.
NCDs in developing countries are occurring more rapidly, arising in younger people, and leading to far worse health outcomes than ever seen in developed countries. This epidemic results from persistent poverty, unprecedented urbanization, and freer trade in emerging-market nations, which have not yet established the health and regulatory systems needed to treat and prevent NCDs. According to the World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Risks report, these diseases pose a greater threat to global economic development than fiscal crises, natural disasters, corruption, or infectious disease.
Read more at at Foreign Affairs' Special Report: Global Public Health.
The international community has done little to help. Most donors remain focused on the battle against infectious diseases, reluctant to divert their funds. A recent UN General Assembly meeting devoted to NCDs produced few concrete measures. With the global economy still in decline and funding scarce, the chances of new effective cooperation seem smaller than ever.
Collective action on NCDs need not wait for UN endorsement, economic recovery, or a reallocation of money away from campaigns against infectious diseases. The international community can make progress now by addressing those NCDs that are especially prevalent among poor people in developing countries and by helping their governments combat those diseases. For this effort to succeed, the United States must lead the way. In doing so, it can help curtail avoidable sickness and death and set the precedent for action on other emerging global health challenges that share the same origins and devastating consequences for the world's poor as the NCD crisis.
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