What’s a Non-Communicable Disease and Why do I Care?

Posted on: August 14th, 2012 by Arogya World

Emily Lauten is a graduate student at American University studying Public Communication. She works as an Advocacy and Communications Intern at Arogya World.  A native Chicagoan and ardent White Sox fan, she is currently based in Washington, DC.

I’m 22. I don’t pay for my own health insurance. I don’t know anyone my age with diabetes. Or heart disease. Or even cancer for that matter.  I’m too young to see the physical, aesthetic ramifications of sitting out in the sun too long and haven’t yet felt the results of too much red meat and fried food. I’ll admit it. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky.

It’s not that I don’t think that chronic disease could happen to me. It’s just that I don’t think about it at all. And in this lies the very problem.

I’ll have a master’s degree in August, but before a couple of months ago, I could not have told you what a non-communicable disease is. Non-communicable diseases, for those readers like me, encompass cardiovascular disease, cancers, chronic-respiratory diseases, and diabetes. I couldn’t have told you what it is, and I certainly didn’t know that NCDs cause two out of every three deaths globally.

By 2030, non-communicable diseases will cause five times as many deaths as HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria COMBINED.  With numbers so staggering how could I not have known?

But learning what NCDs are was only the beginning of my journey.  As a communications intern for Arogya World, I began to delve into the research trying to piece together the implications of NCDs.  And what I learned is troublesome.

When 80% of deaths from NCDs occur in developing countries, there is a problem.

When middle-aged adults in low and middle income countries develop disease at younger ages, suffer longer, and die sooner than those in high income countries, there is a problem.

And what is most frustrating is that the large majority of NCDs can be prevented.  Diet and exercise are major contributors to the development of these diseases.  Implementation of tobacco control strategies can prevent 5.5 million deaths per year, and salt reduction can prevent 8.5 million deaths at a cost of about 20 cents per person per year in China and India.  8.5 million is roughly the population of New York City.  If these kinds of numbers were happening the U.S. it would be called a tragedy, an epidemic.  But its not happening here, and it’s not close to making the front page.

When was the last time you dropped a quarter walking down the street and didn’t bother to pick it up? It was just a quarter, nothing to worry about.  But that same quarter is the difference between life and death for someone in a low-income country.

People are dying from illness that could have been stopped. This is a problem.

Non-communicable diseases are radically shaping and stratifying the global population.  And I simply didn’t know.

Health shouldn’t be something that money determines.  The fortune or misfortune of where a person is born shouldn’t be an automatic death sentence before the age of 30 or a diabetes diagnosis in one’s early 20s.

Health equity matters.

Global non-communicable disease prevention matters.

A few months ago, I wasn’t apathetic. I was just uninformed. But now I know, and so do you.  So what are we going to do about it?