Worldwide they take the lives of over 36 million people annually, roughly equal to the populations of California. They cripple the economic potential of countries around the world. They silently and slowly erode the overall health and quality of life of hundreds of millions of people every day and will account for 73 percent of all deaths globally by 2020.
While this might sound like the plot of a science fiction novel, the reality is that non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cancer, diabetes, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases are devastating the lives of people, are crippling healthcare systems, and are having a destructive effect on the economies of many countries around the world.
Human cost and economic loss
More than 90 percent of premature deaths due to NCDs occur in low and middle income countries. Furthermore, NCDs are the six leading causes of death globally, and account for up to 70 percent of deaths among people 65 years and older.
The well-respected medical journal, The Lancet, elaborated on the problem in their November 2010 issue, stating that: "Non-communicable diseases have been a silent killer for too long. They are a major cause of poverty, a barrier to economic development, and a serious threat to achievement of the Millennium Development Goals."
Even the United States is far from immune. NCDs account for nearly 90 percent of all deaths, and around 75 percent of U.S. healthcare spending -- costing around 1 trillion dollars per year. With a bill of $125 billion for cancer treatments, and over $174 billion for the treatment of and economic loss due to diabetes, it is clear to see why these issues are rising up on the agenda.
Remember Audrey Hepburn
Improving nutrition is actually the most fundamental, impactful and cost-effective way to prevent NCDs. The top six diseases, which account for 70 percent of global deaths, are in fact modifiable by nutrition. Epidemiological studies have shown that the right nutrition -- especially during the critical development stage from conception to two years of age -- is an indispensable factor in the prevention of NCDs.
According to research by Professor David Barker of the University of Southampton, without adequate nutrition, developing babies are likely to suffer from 'hidden hunger' at this very early stage, with a lack of the requisite vitamins, lipids and minerals for healthy development leading to them being born underweight. Known as the 'Barker Theory', his study suggests that underweight infants and those who are stunted in early childhood have a heightened disease risk, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
New research by Dr. Nessa Carey of Imperial College, London, suggests that the iconic actress Audrey Hepburn, who died prematurely at age 63, likely suffered a lifetime of poor health due to starvation and poor nutrition as a teenager in the Netherlands during World War II. Her slight figure was not the result of some diet trend, but a legacy of jaundice, anemia, respiratory problems and chronic blood disorders born out of this desperate time in her life.
In fact, nutrition is a critical disease prevention tool throughout our entire lives. At present, an estimated two billion people around the world -- in rich countries like the United States and poor countries throughout Africa and Asia -- suffer from hidden hunger, which leaves them vulnerable to both infectious and non-infectious diseases and lowers their overall economic potential.
This is truly a global problem -- though it may seem most apparent in the developing world, but even in the U.S., research shows that without enrichment, fortification or supplementation, many Americans do not reach their micro-nutrient intakes according to recommendations.
What to do
Living in a globalized world, we all recognize our global responsibilities, as governments, NGOs, corporations and individuals. Given the scale of the world's problems, however, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, with a sinking feeling that your contribution, whatever it is, cannot make a difference.
But there are reasons to be optimistic. I am particularly excited about a new campaign where all actors can be involved and, by pooling our resources, can make a difference in the lives of millions of people around the world. This ambitious project is called Future Fortified, and was recently launched at the Clinton Global Initiative's annual meeting in New York.
The campaign will first focus on addressing the horrific famine gripping the Horn of Africa by helping to fill the severe food and nutrition gap. As a kick-off commitment, DSM, in partnership with GAIN and Herbalife will be donating 20 million MixMe micronutrient powder sachets, which will provide essential vitamins and minerals for mothers in Ethiopia and Kenya to improve their children's diets by adding vital micronutrients to meals prepared at home. The campaign will eventually expand to include other countries in Africa and Asia.
Individuals can take part in the Future Fortified campaign by hosting fundraisers and engaging with their representatives to increase America's involvement in this important initiative. As a corporate citizen, my company is providing our science, expertise, and our tailor-made solutions to tackle hidden hunger in the developing world. We strongly believe in working in partnership to tackle these issues.
And by all of us doing what we can, collectively we can really make a difference.