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Cancer, diabetes are becoming equal opportunity killers worldwide

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Not long ago, the focus of medical humanitarian concern and aid in the developing world were communicable diseases like tuberculosis, malaria, typhoid and HIV/AIDS. And even though they still get the majority of press time, it turns out that these are no longer the major causes of death – not by a long stretch.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a report circulated Monday that four main noncommunicable diseases "have emerged relatively unnoticed in the developing world and are now becoming a global epidemic." These are: cancer, diabetes and heart and lung disease, which are rapidly increasing at a cost to the global economy to the tune of trillions of dollars.

According to the report, 63% of the total 57 million deaths globally in 2008 were caused by noncommunicable diseases. Nearly 80 percent of these deaths were in the developing world, and 9 million deaths were of men and women under the age of 60, it said. By 2030, the report estimates that these diseases will claim 52 million lives.

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Ban Ki-moon said that deaths from noncommunicable, chronic diseases such as cancer, lung disease and diabetes, which have become the medical staple of the Western, developed world, are the result of exporting the Western lifestyle to the rest of the world. Specifically, tobacco use, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, obesity and harmful alcohol use are some of the known risk factors for chronic illness.

An aging population, the negative impact of urbanization, and the globalization of trade and marketing are some of the driving forces behind the spread of the unhealthy habits. For example, the vast displacement of indigenous and farming populations to the world’s mega-cities, who most often settle in slums, contributes to the degradation of a healthy, active lifestyle with minimally processed food. The displaced villagers often end up squatting in cramped quarters, in stark poverty but with all the trappings of Western “comforts” such as a television set, snack foods and the ubiquitous sugary sodas.

It is also important to note that an aging population will also carry increased risk of chronic disease. The developing world is home to an unprecedented aging population because of advances made in the prevention of communicable diseases, which used to decimate substantial numbers of people before they reached maturity.

Professor David Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health, a leading researcher on a project to estimate the global economic burden of noncommunicable diseases, said preliminary results indicate that the substantial economic burden caused by these diseases today "will evolve into a staggering economic burden over the next two decades" that could have a huge impact on economic development and fighting poverty.

These burdens will not be restricted to specific countries. As the globalization process continues, economic burdens are no longer isolated regionally. A country buckling under the weight of catastrophic public health challenges will negatively affect its trading partnerships – and the economic well-being of its partners.