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Nalini Saligram Headshot

Urging World Leaders at Davos to Focus on the Crisis of Chronic Diseases

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This week, more than 30 heads of state will join chief executives from the world's largest global businesses and leaders of civil society, academia and the media at Davos for the 2011 World Economic Forum. They will work toward developing a global agenda and building solutions to some of the most pressing issues of our time. I am encouraged that this year Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), currently the cause of more than 60% of deaths in the world -- of which 80% are in the developing world -- are on the agenda. It is my fervent hope that the world leaders will come up with some sustainable solutions to the NCD crisis, which had been highlighted by a World Economic Forum report last year as one of the most severe threats to the economy.

For far too long, global health attention has focused on diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria and must go beyond them to far more common life-threatening diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, cancer and chronic lung disease. Americans are familiar with these chronic conditions and how preventable many of them are. But few of us knew until recently that, as the WHO points out, NCDs cause more than twice the number of deaths globally than all infectious diseases, maternal and childhood conditions and nutritional deficiencies combined. In countries such as India, the economic boom is threatened by the impending crisis of NCDs, where one in every five people has at least one chronic disease and one in ten has more than one. Even in sub-Saharan Africa - which has been ravaged by HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases -- experts predict that deaths from chronic illnesses will surpass deaths from infectious diseases by the year 2030. And yet only 3% of development assistance goes to fight these chronic conditions globally. Clearly much more investment is needed.

The costs of failing to address these chronic diseases are measured in lives but also in lost economic earning power. Out of the 35 million people who died from chronic disease in 2005, half were under 70 and half were women. In the developing world, where women are often the economic engines for their families and communities, such deaths can have devastating consequences and can slow the progress of economic development in nations.

In a global economy, we are all at risk from the threats posed by early, unnecessary deaths of people in the prime of their lives. The United States, recognized for its leadership in global health and development, must lead the world by acknowledging the impact of NCDs - not only in the U.S. but across the planet. As our government continues to ensure that its global aid is having the best possible impact, chronic diseases must become a part of the overall global health and development agenda.

There is hope. In September, the UN General Assembly will hold the first ever UN high-level meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases. With heads of state and world leaders expected to participate, this is a huge step in the right direction and a transformative and unprecedented opportunity for action. But we don't have to wait until September. This week, at the World Economic Forum, world leaders can turn their attention to the tremendous benefits of addressing NCDs. By stressing prevention, these leaders can work to save billions of dollars and improve the health and lives of countless citizens of our planet. The healthier our global citizens are, the brighter our collective future will be. Please join me in urging all participants at the World Economic Forum to pledge to make the prevention of chronic disease one of their highest priorities.