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Killer Diseases Spur UN Action Call to Avert $47 Trillion Cost

Killer Diseases Spur UN Action Call to Avert $47T Cost
A woman smokes a cigarette in New York. Photographer: JB Reed/Bloomberg

Productivity losses and medical treatment for cancer, diabetes and other non-contagious diseases will cost $47 trillion by 2030, according to the first study that quantifies the likely expense of leading causes of death.

Increasing costs from the obesity- and lifestyle-linked illnesses in the next two decades represent 75 percent of gross domestic product in 2010, the study by the World Economic Forum and Harvard University found. The findings were released yesterday in New York on the eve of a two-day United Nations summit aimed at tackling a disease scourge already overwhelming health systems, especially in emerging markets.

The World Health Organization identified strategies to prevent and treat cancer, heart disease and lung disease that would cost $11.4 billion a year to implement in low- and middle-income countries, the UN agency said in a separate report yesterday. Without action, those nations could suffer $7 trillion in losses, the World Economic Forum and Harvard study said.

“Families, countries and economies are losing people in their most productive years,” Olivier Raynaud, senior director of health at the World Economic Forum, said in a statement. “Non-communicable diseases have the potential to not only bankrupt health systems but to also put a brake on the global economy.”

Non-communicable diseases are responsible for about three of every five deaths worldwide. Almost 80 percent of those deaths are in low-income countries, such as Niger, and middle-income countries, such as Thailand, according to the Geneva-based WHO.

Mental Illness

Mental health conditions and cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke, account for almost 70 percent of the lost productivity predicted by the authors of the World Economic Forum and Harvard study. The main drivers of these chronic, non-infectious diseases are smoking, harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity and poor diet, they said.

The study uses three different methods to calculate the economic burden of non-communicable diseases, enabling the authors to analyze data from both a private and social perspective, they said.

“Non-communicable diseases undermine productivity and result in the loss of capital and labor,” said David Bloom, the Clarence James Gamble professor of economics and demography at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, and one of the report’s authors.

‘Unbearable’ Costs

“These costs are unbearable and clearly call for innovative solutions and an all-of-society approach, with strong government partnerships between government, the private sector and society,” Bloom said in a statement.

World leaders will meet today and Tuesday at the UN General Assembly to produce a resolution for government action against physical inactivity and use of harmful food ingredients, tobacco and alcohol.

Scaling up a series of measures to prevent and treat cancer, heart disease and lung disease would have a daily per person cost of $1 in low-income nations, $1.50 in lower middle-income countries and $3 in upper middle-income countries, the WHO said.

“The most basic package of prevention and control measures is affordable, even for poor countries,” said Ann Keeling, chair of the NCD Alliance, a network of more than 2,000 non-government organizations working on non-communicable diseases, in a statement. “But the cost of not tackling these growing killers is inestimably higher than the cost of acting now.”

WHO’s recommendation targeting populations include taxing tobacco and alcohol, ensuring smoke-free workplaces, wider access to health information and warnings, and improving public awareness about diets and physical activity. For individuals, WHO recommends cancer screening, drug therapy and vaccination against tumor-causing infections such as hepatitis B.

The only other time the General Assembly met solely on a health topic was the 2001 AIDS meeting that led to a global fund and a 10-fold increase in financial backing for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria programs.

“We have to reduce the escalation of NCDs,” Tobeka Madiba-Zuma, wife of South African President Jacob Zuma, said in an interview in New York yesterday. “It will take each and every person to do something about it -- it can’t be the government alone, or the private sector alone.”

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