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Health just got political again

16 September 2011
UN holds high-level meeting on action to combat non-communicable diseases

World leaders gathered in New York for the 66th United Nations General Assembly temporarily set aside the usual affairs of state and for the second time ever debated a health issue.

A decade on from the decisive high-level meeting that launched HIV and AIDS onto the global political and development agenda, leaders tackled what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon famously described as “a public health emergency in slow motion".

The 2011 High Level Meeting on the Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) from 19 to 20 September 2011 presented a unique opportunity for the international community to take action against the epidemic, save millions of lives and enhance development initiatives, according to the United Nations.

NCDs, which include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory diseases, currently claim 35 million lives every year and this figure is projected to increase to 53 million deaths by 2030. Of the estimated 19.5 million deaths in the Commonwealth in 2008, 9.3 million, or 47 per cent, were due to NCDs (compared to 44% from communicable diseases, maternal, perinatal and nutritional conditions).

The Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, said: “Trinidad and Tobago strongly endorses the development of a global strategy for the prevention and control of NCDs. This requires the harnessing of financial and other resources not readily available to many developing countries.”

The Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Ralph Gonsalves, speaking at the plenary session, praised Commonwealth leaders saying their solidarity and foresight had led to the issuing of the statement on action to combat NCDs during their summit in Port of Spain in 2009.

“This is a time for the international community to roll up our collective sleeves to confront an epidemic that is correctible, reversible and treatable,” he said.

Commonwealth Deputy Secretary-General Ransford Smith said: “Strong commitments are needed in New York - commitments which lead to action, and are accompanied by a timetable for implementation.

“Although these diseases often take many years to manifest, we cannot afford to do nothing and wait. NCDs are largely preventable and global co-operation now could save millions of lives and avert further strain on already weak health systems and economies."

On Tuesday, 20 September, the Commonwealth Secretariat is co-hosting a side event on gender-responsive approaches to non-communicable diseases.

The event is organised in partnership with the governments of Trinidad and Tobago, Samoa, Mexico, and Nicaragua; the Pan American Health Organization; the NCD Alliance; and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

Mr Smith, who will address the meeting, said gender roles and norms can greatly affect the risk factors and health outcomes of the four major NCDs – cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease and diabetes.

“Gender must be an integral part of all NCDs strategies and this important meeting is an opportunity to share best practice and discuss the implications of research findings on NCDs policy,” he said.

The 54-nation Commonwealth has played a leading role in lobbying for political action on NCDs which make the largest contribution to mortality in the majority of developing countries and economies in transition, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In April 2011, The Lancet published a definitive paper in which NCDs were described as a ‘major barrier’ to development - leading to poverty, threatening health systems, deepening health inequalities, and impacting on economic stability and human security.

Mr Smith said: “NCDs are a real concern for Commonwealth countries, and are threatening to undermine achievements made towards reaching the Millennium Development Goals on combating poverty, hunger and disease.”

In 2009, when Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Trinidad and Tobago, leaders issued a statement recognising the growing burden of NCDs and calling for action at the highest level.

Six months later in Geneva, Commonwealth health ministers adopted a Roadmap on Non-Communicable Diseases, which among other things, identified the need for a deeper collaboration with partners working on the area of NCDs and for a media strategy to promote reporting of NCD issues in the Commonwealth. This year, the Secretariat hosted its annual Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting on the theme ‘NCDs – A Priority for the Commonwealth’.

To this end, the Commonwealth Secretariat has engaged with governments, international organisations and civil society partners, including The Lancet, WHO and the NCD Alliance, to push for tangible outcomes at the high-level meeting. This has included a media training programme for reporting NCDs, organised in partnership with the Pan American Health Organization.

Ahead of the high-level meeting, campaigners welcomed agreement by UN member states on a strongly-worded political declaration which recognises the scale of the NCDs crisis and the urgent need for action.

“Commonwealth governments have largely led the way on raising the global profile of NCDs. The high-level meeting is significant in that it places NCDs firmly into the political and development agenda,” said Mr Smith.