[Viewpoint] The way we live is killing us

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[Viewpoint] The way we live is killing us

Traditionally, changes in the way we live and the foods we eat have evolved slowly, allowing our bodies to gradually adapt over time. But not any more. Rising urbanization, increasingly sedentary lifestyles and the aggressive marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar have occurred so rapidly that the human organism has been overwhelmed.

As a result, the world is facing a new kind of pandemic. Cases of noncommunicable diseases - such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory aliments and diabetes - are rising rapidly and now afflict every country in the world.

In the Western Pacific region - home to nearly 1.8 billion people - these lifestyle-related diseases are responsible for four out of every five deaths. Of those, nearly 30,000 people die every day due to diseases that can and should be prevented.

Tobacco alone claims 3,000 lives in the Western Pacific region every single day, according to World Health Organization estimates. Those same estimates indicate that 15 percent of all deaths among males aged 15 to 44 in the region can be attributed to alcohol. WHO’s global data shows that being overweight and obesity are responsible for 44 percent of all diabetes cases. And physical inactivity is estimated to cause between 15 percent and 25 percent of breast and colon cancers and is responsible for 30 percent of the heart disease burden worldwide.

And this is only the beginning. Globally, deaths due to cancer are projected to rise by more than 60 percent in the first 30 years of this century, according to the latest WHO projections of mortality and disease burden. Deaths due to cardiovascular disease are expected to increase by more than 70 percent over the same period. By 2030, noncommunicable diseases will account for 80 percent of all deaths.

The rising tide of lifestyle-related diseases is already straining our health systems. Unlike communicable diseases, such as influenza or malaria, which tend to strike quickly, noncommunicable diseases generally progress slowly, creating complex health needs that are expensive to treat and that can gradually overpower already stressed health systems.

For families, the results can be catastrophic. Noncommunicable diseases are claiming victims at increasingly younger ages, depriving many citizens of their most productive years. These premature deaths devastate families by claiming the lives of primary wage-earners and, in the case of those with lingering illnesses, can tip some families into poverty because of the cost of long-term health care.

To the uninitiated, the problem of noncommunicable diseases sounds like a “health issue” that is best left to the health sector. But the truth is that by the time people enter the health system with cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory ailments and diabetes, it is often too late to offer much help. The battle needs to begin at a much earlier stage and across a broader front.

The private sector - those involved in producing, marketing and trading food - can take important steps to make food healthier, while still enjoying good profits. City planners and transportation officials can create urban environments that promote healthier lifestyles. And governments can educate their populations about the risks associated with tobacco and excessive alcohol use. The earlier this education starts, the better.

An important step toward a solution will be taking place in Seoul on Thursday, when health ministers and experts from across the Western Pacific region will gather to discuss the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases. Out of that meeting will come the Seoul Declaration, which is designed to provide a firm commitment to tackle the problem at the highest level of government.

We should not fool ourselves into thinking that the problem is too big or too complicated. In the Western Pacific region we’ve seen real progress in controlling tobacco, one of the major risk factors for noncommunicable diseases. All the countries in this region have ratified the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and now have laws designed to reduce tobacco consumption. As a result, many countries in the Western Pacific are reporting declines in smoking prevalence.

We need to mount similar campaigns against unhealthy diets, physical inactivity and other noncommunicable disease risks. We know what needs to be done. Now we have to do it.

*The writer is the WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific.


By Shin Young-soo

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