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UN Meeting on NCDs Hold Out Promise but Work Remains to Be Done

October 26, 2011 | Mary Pittman, DrPH | Dialogue4Health

I was recently honored to participate as an observer representing the Public Health Institute (PHI) at the United Nations High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in New York. This historic event marked the first time the world body had ever considered the toll of NCDs.

This meeting represented an important milestone in a long road toward a world in which preventable illnesses like cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes are largely avoided. However, one important piece of business was left unfinished: the adoption of concrete targets and indicators to clearly show the scope of the problem and progress being made. The World Health Organization now has responsibility for developing these targets by the end of 2012, and PHI is in the vanguard of organizations and individuals pushing for their development.

As for the meeting, I largely have good news to report. The political declaration, approved unanimously by 193 nations on September 19, is a strong document that outlines both the scope of the problem and solutions. Beforehand, PHI had identified three key areas on which to take special action:

  1. Support the prevention and treatment of NCDs related to women.
  2. Recognize the need for prevention and treatment of NCDs in children and adolescents.
  3. Consider the connections between climate change and NCDs.

The high-level meeting's final political declaration addresses the first two of these areas. With respect to women, the declaration states that governments, international organizations and civil society should take gender into account in developing strategies for prevention, treatment and monitoring programs. The declaration also articulates that the distinct concerns of children and adolescents with respect to NCDs must be taken into account and accurately measured. It was especially gratifying for me to hear UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, an alumnus of PHI's leadership programs, speak about the special challenges young people face in confronting NCDs.

Unfortunately, the document does not address how the prevalence of NCDs can be significantly lowered by taking action against human-caused climate change. PHI held a panel discussion on this subject at a satellite event. Experts from the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition discussed the ways that environmental and health issues are intertwined.

As with any large-scale process, the battle against NCDs will take time. There is undoubtedly more advocacy work to do on this subject, in both the global health and environmental communities, and PHI intends to remain focused on these and other remaining issues in the coming months and years. I will continue to keep you informed about our progress.

Mary Pittman, DrPH, is president and CEO of PHI.