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Time to address a neglected global epidemic

By John Seffrin, Larry Hausner and Nancy Brown, Special to CNN
From left: Larry Hausner, Nancy Brown and John Seffrin
From left: Larry Hausner, Nancy Brown and John Seffrin
  • Authors: Noncommunicable diseases account for about 60 percent of all deaths worldwide
  • They say U.S. global health initiative lacks funding for noncommunicable diseases
  • U.N. resolution calls for summit on noncommunicable diseases
  • Authors call on U.S. ambassador to the U.N. to support the resolution

Editor's note: Nancy Brown is CEO of the American Heart Association and serves on the boards of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and the Partnership for Prevention. Larry Hausner is CEO of the American Diabetes Association, vice chairperson of the National Health Council and co-chair of the Centers for Public Health Roundtable. John R. Seffrin is CEO of the American Cancer Society and serves on the advisory committee to the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(CNN) -- According to the World Health Organization, noncommunicable diseases -- such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes -- claim more than 35 million lives each year and account for about 60 percent of all deaths worldwide.

About 28 million, or 80 percent, of the people who die live in low- and middle-income countries. In all regions of the world except Africa, mortality rates are higher for noncommunicable diseases than for communicable diseases among men and women age 15 to 59.

In addition to the human catastrophe, noncommunicable diseases pose a severe threat to national economies and the global economic system. The World Economic Forum recently highlighted noncommunicable diseases as one of the three most likely and severe risks to the global economy alongside fiscal crises and asset bubbles, a form of inflation.

According to the World Health Organization, the costs of heart disease, stroke and diabetes alone could reduce the gross domestic product in Russia, China and India by 1 to 5 percent within five years. In these countries, the cumulative loss in national income from chronic disease between 2005 and 2015 could exceed $1 trillion.

In Mexico, 75 percent of deaths are attributable to noncommunicable disease. Brazilian officials told the U.N. in April that they have seen a shift in the last years away from communicable diseases. There, cardiovascular diseases represent the major cause of death, followed by cancer.

In India, two fifths of deaths were from noncommunicable disease in 1990; by 2020, it is projected to increase to 66 percent.

Despite these alarming figures, noncommunicable diseases tend to be overlooked by many in the global health community and are underfunded by bilateral and multilateral agencies.

Noncommunicable diseases are largely overlooked by the global health community and are woefully underfunded ...
--Hausner, Brown and Seffrin

A forthcoming report from the Center for Global Development estimates that less than 1 percent of public and private funding for health is allocated to preventing and controlling noncommunicable diseases in low- and middle-income countries.

Here in the United States, the administration's global health initiative should include meaningful funding for noncommunicable diseases. Such funding should be based on the many cost-effective solutions to prevent or treat these diseases, which can be integrated into existing global health programs.

On May 13, a resolution will be introduced at the United Nations calling for a summit on noncommunicable diseases "in order to develop strategic responses to these diseases and their repercussions."


This summit would raise the profile of noncommunicable diseases on the global stage, mobilize the international community to take action and secure the commitment of heads of state to address this neglected epidemic of epidemics. It was a similar meeting in 2001 that paved the way for an international response to the HIV/AIDS crisis. So far, more than 60 countries have co-sponsored the resolution.

We are asking Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, and the U.S. State Department to support this resolution, and we encourage governments throughout the world to do the same. Now, more than ever, the world's leaders must take steps to balance the global response to both communicable and noncommunicable diseases, especially in low- and middle-income countries where the burden of noncommunicable diseases continues to grow unchecked and underappreciated.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.