The BBC has reported on the World Health Organization’s plan to tackle non-communicable diseases like heart disease, which it says now pose a greater global burden than infectious diseases.
‘Lifestyle-related’ diseases are now the leading cause of death worldwide, killing 36 million people a year. Cardiovascular diseases were responsible for 48% of these deaths, cancers 21%, chronic respiratory diseases 12% and diabetes 3%.
Cancer, diabetes, heart diseases and lung diseases are normally thought of as diseases of the affluent West, but 80% of all deaths caused by them happen in the developing world. Much of the toll is in low and middle-income countries and this is where efforts must be focused, says WHO. It suggests affordable steps governments should take.
The list includes measures that target the population as a whole, such as excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol, smoke-free indoor workplaces and public places, as well as campaigns to reduce salt and dangerous fats in foods.
Other tactics focus on individuals and include screening and treatment for cardiovascular disease and cervical cancer, as well as immunisation against hepatitis B to prevent liver cancer.
WHO estimates the total cost for adopting these strategies in all low-and middle-income countries would be $11.4bn (£7.2bn) per year. Many countries have already adopted the public health interventions, and have seen a marked reduction in disease incidence and mortality.
In comparison, the cumulative costs of heart diseases, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer and diabetes in poorer countries are expected to top $7 trillion (£4.4 trillion) in 2011-2025, an average of nearly $500bn (£316bn) a year, according to the World Economic Forum.
£7.2 billion seems a lot of money. But it is really a very small investment indeed alongside the bill for rescuing British banks following the near-collapse of the financial system in 2008-2009.
According to the National Audit Office the Government spent £117 billion buying shares in banks and lending directly to financial institutions.
The audit office also suggested that the bill could rise further, as the total of investments, guarantees, loans and insurance schemes established to support the banks meant that the taxpayer was liable for up to £850 billion — £40,000 for each family.
These commitments include buying £76bn of shares in Royal Bank of Scotland and the Lloyds Banking Group; indemnifying the Bank of England against losses incurred in providing more than £200bn of liquidity support; guaranteeing up to £250bn of wholesale borrowing by banks to strengthen liquidity; providing £40bn of loans and other funding to Bradford & Bingley and the Financial Services Compensation Scheme; and insurance cover of over £280bn for bank assets.
So the cost of tackling non-communicable diseases worldwide each year in poor countries (£7.2 bn) is less than 1% of what we will spend bailing out British banks (£850 bn).
Imagine what impact we could have made had we chosen to invest our money in caring for the poor rather than in borrowing to live beyond our means.
God said of Sodom, ‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.’ (Ezekiel 16:49, 50)
I wonder what he would say of us?