Reflections from the Global Dialogue on tackling non-communicable diseases

‘’If there is a common interest, there is an opportunity’’

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Copyright WHO

‘’Non-communicable diseases are fast becoming a disease of mass destruction’’ – with those words, the Minister of Health and Quality of Life of Mauritius, Mr Anil Kumarshingh Gayan opened the WHO Global Dialogue Meeting on the role of non-State actors in supporting Member States in their national efforts to tackle noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and set the stage for further discussions. The Global Dialogue gathered representatives of governments, the UN, other intergovernmental organizations and non-State actors, including NGOs, business associations, academic institutions and philanthropic foundations to discuss the role the organizations can play in tackling the epidemics of NCDs. More specifically: how can cross-sectoral plans work, how to provide evidence on effective interventions and to monitor progress?

Three questions emerged from the heated discussions during the three-day event hold in Balaclava, Mauritius:

  1. How can the private sector be involved in the actions on NCDs?
  2. Where to find funds for the NCD battle?
  3. What role do NSAs play in the whole process?

The Global Dialogue is a unique mechanism set by World Health Organization (WHO) and its Member States to boost the exchange with stakeholders, who are normally excluded from the formal negotiations due to the assumed conflict of interest. It gives an opportunity to meet with e.g. food and beverage producers. As people need to eat and drink, the companies seem to be an obvious player in the system that creates the lifestyle behaviours and norms. ‘’The companies not only recognize the problem of obesity and diabetes caused by sugary drinks but also take the share of responsibility for the situation.’’, said Mr Rocco Renaldi from International Food and Beverage Alliance. He continued: ‘’We want to be a part of solution and implement actions supporting health of our consumers’’. He mentioned e.g. food reformulation and being sensitive to the needs of people. This sounds like a good plan, only if the reformulation will be global and equal for all countries and if the marketing power the companies have will be used for creating the healthy needs among the population.

NCDs are a big problem and it feels that lots of money is needed to solve it. Someone said: ‘’We need to make the governments putting 20% of the health budget on NCDs’’ – as good as it sounds, it feels very unrealistic. With NCDs being responsible for more than 80% of deaths it can be assumed that most of the funds of health ministry is actually dedicated to treat cancer, cardiovascular and diabetic patients. To tackle NCDs, we cannot demand more money! Instead, we need to work on the shift from disease-focus to prevention-focus and not only in the governments but also among regular people. The state can provide the best options for healthy living and choices but the final decision to use them or not relies on the citizens. Creating healthy norms and behaviours at schools could be an option. With the universal school system, reaching practically every child health-promoting curricula could probably do more than expensive media campaigns and interventions.

And that is the role of the governments – to recognize the synergies with other sectors and partners and to create conditions for joint work for health by setting the right policies. Tackling NCDs is not a cost but an investment, which shall quickly pay off. Moreover, the governments have powerful tools, like sin taxes, which can be used to directly support health promotion work, as the example from Thailand shows. There, an extra 2% tax was put on the cigarettes to finance the Health Promotion Foundation. Every year since 2001, those modest 2% generate 150 mln USD for disease prevention work.

So what is the recipe for successful action on NCDs? Take the strong public sector leadership, add bold decisions and policy coherence, share it with industry and civil society, acting early and acting together!

This blog was written by Young Gasteiner Karolina Mackiewicz from the Baltic Region Healthy Cities Association who participated in the Global Dialogue representing the Healthy Cities experience in health promotion work and reporting from the pre-dialogue workshop on urban environments and health that took place during the European Health Forum Gastein on 28 September 2016.
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