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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

U.N. Health Talks Promise Global Action on Heart Disease, Diabetes, Cancer

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smoking woman

About 1 billion people use tobacco worldwide, but a recent U.N. declaration is aiming to cut that number in an effort to prevent associated diseases, deaths and economic costs.

Palestine has grabbed the lion's share of attention at the U.N. General Assembly meeting this week in New York, but the international organization is also tackling several other major issues, including climate change and health, that could have great long-term effect on the world's population down the road.

Earlier this week, the U.N. General Assembly devoted a special session to the pressing global issue of chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, diabetes, heart disease and respiratory illness. All told, these ailments claim some 36 million lives each year (some 63 percent of deaths overall)—and over the next two decades will run up a tab of some $47 trillion.

Once largely diseases of the wealthy, diabetes, heart disease and other conditions linked to overweight and obese lifestyles are increasingly common among the disadvantaged—both people and countries. These NCDs "hit the poor and vulnerable particularly hard and drive them deeper into poverty," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Kai-moon said at the meeting.

The General Assembly last held a special high-level session on health issues 10 years ago, when member states met to discuss HIV and AIDS, a gathering that paved the way for UNAIDS (the Joint United Program on HIV and AIDS). And many public health officials are hopeful that in addition to drawing attention to the cause, it might result in a real reduction of illness and deaths in this field.

This week's health meeting closed with a unified intention to reduce the burden of these non-communicable diseases, many have criticized it already for lacking specificity and deadlines. "What is missing is a commitment to action," K. M. Venkat Narayan, a professor of public health at Emory University who attended the meeting, told Reuters. The General Assembly has tasked the World Health Organization with putting together more specific voluntary global targets and monitoring recommendations by the end of next year.

Fighting these major non-communicable diseases requires a different approach than battling infectious diseases, many of which, such as smallpox and polio, have been wiped nearly away. One level of action must occur in the policy and corporate arena, such as establishing regulations that discourage smoking and limit the amount of unhealthful transfats in processed foods. The other front might be even more challenging: getting people to change their behavior and adopt more healthful lifestyles.

The member states are not without some rough models. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg addressed the session Monday, reviewing the city's new low-smoking rates, chain-restaurant menu calorie labels and soda- and salt-reduction campaigns. These achievements, which increased life expectancy in New York City by 1.5 years between 2001 and 2008, have taken some political muscle. "There are powers only governments can exercise, policies only governments can mandate and enforce, and results only governments can achieve," Bloomberg said, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, president of the General Assembly, noted that governments, companies and individuals must work together to prevent the deep cuts from these non-communicable diseases from increasing. "NCDs are altering demographics," he said. "They are stunting development. And they are impacting economic growth." And with this week's continued financial turmoil grabbing almost as many headlines as the Palestine discussion, the economic argument might be one of the strongest sells for global health.

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/1001nights

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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