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Noncommunicable disease is the new epidemic

By Patricia Jenkings - posted Wednesday, 22 May 2013

As the disease cancer remains a major cause of illness, the Gillard Government's new cancer care package - World Leading Cancer Care, which invests more than $226 million in the fight against cancer - is most significant. The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare reported that in 2010, more than 42,800 Australians died from cancer. It was estimated that in 2012, more than 120,700 Australians would be diagnosed with cancer. For all cancers combined, Indigenous Australians experienced higher incidence and mortality rates that non-Indigenous Australians. Incidence and mortality rates rose and survival from all cancers fell as a person's socioeconomic status decreased.

Cancer is a noncommunicable disease (NCD), also known as chronic disease, which is not passed from person to person. The majority of ill health, disability and premature death arise from NCDs, including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and more recently Alzheimer's disease.

NCDs are the leading cause of death world-wide and with the numbers increasing, this is a growing global problem. The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported in March 2013, NCDs represent 63 per cent of all annual deaths. NCDs kill more than 36 million people each year. According to WHO projections, deaths from NCDs will increase to 55 million by 2030 if changes are not made to existing practices. Further, NCDs are often referred to as 'diseases of affluence'. However, nearly 80 percent – 29 million of all NCD deaths occur in low and middle -income countries.


In gender terms, non-communicable diseases including cancer represent a huge threat to women's health globally. Dr John Seffrin CEO American Cancer Society says cancer is clearly a leading cause of death for women worldwide and that the burden will only escalate without collective action and multi-sector leadership. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, approximately 3.3 women died from cancer in 2008 worldwide, corresponding to nearly 10,000 deaths per day. This number is projected to nearly double by 2030 simply due to the ageing and growth of the population (women).

The world population is ageing and we enjoy better public health overall which has resulted in longevity. However, this demographic change has led to an epidemiological transition. The predominance of infectious diseases is shifting to noncommunicable or chronic disease.

The Australian Institute for Health and Welfare reported that the most dramatic long-term decline in death rates has been that of infectious diseases. Better living conditions and nutrition, vaccinations, antibiotics and other control measures have made a remarkable difference over the decades. The infectious disease death rates fell by about 96 per cent over the twentieth century, having reached an all-time low in the late 1970s of 0.5 per cent of all deaths.

Looking at the 'global picture', a more comprehensive framework is needed to prevent and control NCDs. The WHO has build on past efforts and developed a 2013-2020 draft action plan to provide a road map for the global community to act in a coordinated and coherent manner to prevent and control NCDs. The goal is to prevent and reduce the burden of morbidity and mortality due to NCDs by 2020.

Further, the WHO looks to create a world free of avoidable burdens of NCDs to enable all citizens to reach the highest attainable standards of health and productivity and to work towards those diseases no longer being a barrier to well-being and socioeconomic development. This should occur through multi-sectorial collaboration and cooperation at national, regional and global levels.

The overarching principles and approaches includes a rights based approach, international cooperation and solidarity. This is to occur through multi-sectorial action, empowerment of people and communities, life-course approach and evidence based strategies.


In a sense, this could also be considered a cost saving exercise as the WHO has found that the cost of taking no action far outweighs the cost of efforts to address the burden of NCDs.

In Australia and in line with the global trend, a large proportion of the problems associated with NCDs are considered largely preventable. The WHO reports that tobacco use, for instance, kills nearly 6 million people a year. By 2020, this number it is estimated will increase to 7.5 million, accounting for 10 per cent of all deaths.

The Australian Government in supporting the overall approach proposed for the WHO development of the 2013-2020 Action Plan, says that the new plan will continue building on its global strategy for the prevention and control of non-communicable and link to existing strategies on tobacco, alcohol, diet and physical activity. As well, focuses on Gender and Maternal and Child Health.

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About the Author

Patricia Jenkings is a former political advisor. She has a PhD from the University of Sydney in social policy studies and education.

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