NC-What?

A few weeks ago, I (along with three other FSGers) had the privilege of attending the Global Health Council’s 38th Annual Conference in D.C. This year’s conference was centered on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) and the need to address the growing burden. So I ask, what’s the first thought that comes to your mind when you read: non-communicable diseases?

The path that my mind takes me is: Okay so ‘non’ means that it’s not something. Wait…it’s not infectious? That’s great news! It must not be worst thing that can happen since whatever this disease is, I can’t give it to other people. That’s quite a relief when compared to rapidly spreading pandemics and the health scares like E. coli, SARS, avian flu, etc. that get media space. But it’s still a disease so that must mean that it isn’t good for you. Now that I have a general sense of what it is…what is it?

NCDs aren’t as foreign as you may think. The main ones are cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic lung disease, and diabetes. I made this exercise easy for you by spelling out non-communicable disease. If the topic is ever to come up in conversation, it typically shows its face as NCDs – a three letter acronym that doesn’t mean anything to those not familiar with health. (As I’ve recently entered the world of global health, I’ve been warned by my colleagues on the abundance of three letter acronyms in the field.)

In contrast, this 7 letter acronym: HIV/AIDS, is no stranger to anyone. Those 7 characters carry so much weight behind them and although I confess that it takes me a few seconds to tell you what HIV/AIDS stands for, within a split second I know what those letters are standing up for:

Life
Death
Health
Suffering
Hope
Courage
We can stop it!

HIV/AIDS is a movement and its power lies in those affected by it, their family and their friends. Without the massive mobilization generated by the HIV movement, tens of millions of more individuals would have acquired the virus and many who are alive today would not be.

The common theme that I ran across at the conference was the need for multi-sectoral, multi-national approaches and the need for health systems strengthening and integration of NCDs. In addition, The Global Health Council has a great brief that lays out recommendations for addressing NCDs and although you won’t explicitly find public, grassroots mobilization, it may be the critical mechanism needed to achieve rapid progress.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), NCDs account for about 60% of deaths and nearly 80% of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. It’s kind of a big deal, so how can we raise public awareness on this important issue? Perhaps it’s too big of a disease bucket to effectively build a movement around, but as one conference panelist pointed out, the NCD movement needs to be rebranded. I hope to see the creative thinkers of our day tackle the rebranding of NCDs to help catalyze a grassroots movement in addressing one of the most pressing health and economic issue of our day. Until that happens, sign me up for the next “NCDs Walk”!

To learn more, see WHO’s NCD report.

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