Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which in many cases are preventable and caused by an unhealthy lifestyle or living conditions, kill 41 million people each year, including 17 million under the age of 70, a new report points out from the World Health Organization published on Wednesday
Heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory diseases are now the main causes of death in the world ahead of infectious diseases, underlines the WHO. "Every two seconds, a person under the age of 70 dies of a non-communicable disease," Bente Mikkelsen, head of the WHO division in charge of the case, told reporters in Geneva.
However, the funding to organize the fight against these diseases is too low, she believes.
Additionally, NCDs have a significant impact on the ability of those affected to resist infectious diseases as demonstrated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Obesity or diabetes have been shown to increase the risk of becoming more seriously ill or even dying from Covid-19, the report points out.
- Poorer, sicker -
"If the data paints a clear picture, the problem is that the world is ignoring it," the report warns.
Contrary to popular belief, these diseases are not primarily a problem of rich countries. In fact, 86% of premature deaths from NCDs worldwide occur in low- and lower-middle-income countries, according to the study. Prevention and care are insufficient.
Tackling NCDs is therefore not only a matter of health but also a matter of "equity", said Mr Mikkelsen.
A new NCD data portal launched by the WHO on Wednesday, for example, shows the highest prevalence of deaths from cardiovascular disease - the world's number one killer - in countries such as Afghanistan and Mongolia.
"Too often, the environment we live in limits our decisions, making healthy choices difficult, if not impossible," the report says.
Although the numbers are startling, the WHO stressed that this is a problem that can, for the most part, be solved.
The main risk factors for NCDs are known, as is the best way to treat them.
- Tobacco and junk food -
Smoking, unhealthy diet, alcohol abuse, physical inactivity and air pollution are considered to be the main causes of NCD fever flare.
Smoking alone is responsible for more than eight million deaths every year. "More than a million of these deaths are among non-smokers," said Doug Bettcher, senior adviser to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on NCDs.
Eight million additional deaths are attributable to unhealthy diets: too little or too much food, or poor quality food.
Alcohol abuse, which causes cirrhosis of the liver and cancer, among other things, kills about 1.7 million people a year, while physical inactivity is responsible for about 830,000 deaths.
However the WHO argues that there are proven ways to reduce these risk factors, insisting that if all countries implemented them, 39 million lives could be saved over the next seven years.
The report highlights that relatively modest investments in the prevention and treatment of NCDs could make a huge difference.
Injecting an additional $18 billion per year into such measures in the poorest countries could generate net economic benefits of $2.7 trillion over the next seven years.