Bioethics Blogs

Global Health: Time to Pay Attention to Chronic Diseases

Graph of projected deaths by cause in low income countries

Caption: Projected deaths (in millions) by cause in low-income countries. Note increase in non-communicable diseases (orange).
Credit: Adapted from Beaglehole R, Bonita R. Lancet. 2008 Dec 6;372(9654):1988-96.

Greetings from China. I’m here in Shanghai with other biomedical research leaders for two major meetings. The first one, which is the topic of my blog today, is on global health. So, you might expect there to be a lot of talk about malaria, influenza, MERS-CoV, Ebola virus, sleeping sickness, dengue fever, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and other infectious diseases. And those are most certainly topics of intense interest to NIH and our colleagues around the world. But this particular meeting is about a different kind of global health threat that’s becoming a rapidly growing problem: chronic diseases.

While infectious diseases remain a significant problem in the developing world, cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other non-communicable diseases are now among the fastest growing causes of death and disability around the globe. In fact, nearly three-quarters of the 38 million people who died of chronic diseases in 2012 lived in low- or middle-income countries [1].

To explore and support research strategies aimed at stemming this surge, NIH helped to form a new global health initiative in 2009 called the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases (GACD). The group’s founding members included national research agencies from six nations: the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, China, and India. Since then, research agencies from South Africa, Brazil, and the European Union have also joined.

It may seem counterintuitive that as a nation becomes more affluent, rising from low to lower-middle income, its burden of disease shifts from infectious and parasitic (communicable) diseases to chronic conditions, also referred to as non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.