The issue of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and the impacts they are having on countries has always been a matter of concern for governments and international organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations, and others. It has always been said that too many people are dying prematurely, and urgent actions must be taken to prevent these deaths.
According to the WHO, of all the major health threats that have emerged over the years, none has challenged the very foundations of public health so profoundly as the rise of chronic non-communicable diseases. Due to poor lifestyle choices — such as tobacco use, alcohol abuse, unhealthy diets, and physical inactivity — NCDs have resulted in large numbers of young people dying. Another significant number have fallen ill, and therefore cannot contribute to their families or the development of their communities in any way.
Heart diseases, cancers, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases, once linked only to affluent societies, have affected, and continue to affect, every country in the world; with the poor suffering the most, due to the lack of proper medical care and access to drugs etc.
It should be noted that, based on a 2017 study, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago were found to have the highest mortality rates for premature cardiovascular diseases and diabetes in the Americas. For Guyana in particular, this is indeed quite worrisome, and must serve as a wake-up call for the authorities here to take the issue of fighting NCDs more seriously; as, from all indications, efforts in this regard are being weakened or minimized to some extent.
While there have been some positive moves in tackling NCDs here, such as finalising the Tobacco Control Legislation etc., some experts believe that enough is not being done in the fight against NCDs. Some of the crucial programmes that were previously in place to tackle NCDs appear to have been reduced or totally abandoned. For example, community health fairs, school programmes, and other initiatives which were used to address issues such as positive lifestyles, are becoming less visible. Also, the education and awareness campaigns that were very much visible some years ago need to come back on stream. These are all useful strategies in ensuring the message of healthy lifestyles continues to reach everyone in every community across the country.
A new report from the WHO’s Independent High-level Commission on NCDs, launched recently, calls for urgent action to address chronic diseases and mental health disorders. It demands high-level political commitment and the immediate scaling up of actions to address the epidemic of NCDs. The report, which was also published simultaneously in the medical journal The Lancet, recognises the need to ensure that Health Ministries have the influence they require to ensure the issue is backed by the political will and the necessary financial resources it merits.
The Commission’s report makes six useful recommendations, which countries — including Guyana — should take seriously in order to make continuous progress in relation to tackling NCDs. These include:
Heads of State and Governments should take responsibility for the NCD agenda, rather than delegating it to ministers of health alone; as it requires collaboration and cooperation across many sectors.
Governments should identify and implement a specific set of priorities within the overall NCD and mental health agenda, based on public health needs.
Governments should reorient health systems to include NCDs’ prevention and control and mental health services in their universal health coverage policies and plans.
Governments should increase effective regulation and appropriate engagement with the private sector, academia, civil society, and communities.
Governments and the international community should develop a new economic paradigm for funding actions on NCDs and mental health.
Governments need to strengthen accountability to their citizens for action on NCDs, and simplify existing international accountability mechanisms.
We had stated before that discussions surrounding NCDs should constantly be kept on the national development agenda, where serious efforts are made at all levels to reduce the large numbers of persons suffering or facing death. It is hoped that Governments and international development partners would use this most recent WHO report as a guide in their efforts to effectively address NCDs.