05/25/2012 12:50 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

Chronic Disease Targeted By World's Health Ministers

GENEVA, May 25 (Reuters) - The world's health ministers have agreed to try to cut premature deaths from chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer by 25 percent by 2025, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Friday.

Heart disease, diabetes, cancers and chronic respiratory illnesses are the biggest killer globally, according to the United Nations agency. They account for 36 million deaths a year, or 63 percent of all mortality, and one-quarter of premature deaths under the age of 60.

"I think that we're moving past the phase where noncommunicable diseases remain a largely hidden, misunderstood and unrecorded epidemic," Douglas Bettcher, acting director of WHO's chronic disease and health promotion department, told a news briefing.

The draft decision, adopted by consensus in committee on Thursday night, was put forward by countries including Brazil, Russia and the United States. It is expected to be adopted in a formal plenary on Saturday, the last day of its annual ministerial meeting, WHO officials said.

A high-level meeting of the U.N. General Assembly called last September for the WHO to set voluntary targets to prevent and control such deadly ailments which are taking a high toll on developing countries.

"Conventional wisdom is 'Oh, well this a mainly a high-income country issue'. It is not. NCDs is the biggest killer in all regions in WHO except AFRO, the African region," Bettcher said.

Deaths from noncommunicable diseases are rising in Africa where they are projected to be the biggest killer by 2030.


In the WHO text, its 194 member states voice "strong support for additional work aimed at reaching consensus on targets relating to the four main risk factors, namely tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity".

Voluntary targets should be considered related to high blood pressure, tobacco, salt/sodium and physical activity, it says.

However, it does not set specific targets for tackling these risk factors, although earlier WHO drafts suggested cutting both tobacco and salt intake by 30 percent by 2025.

It merely "indicates support" for developing targets relating to obesity, fat intake, alcohol, cholesterol and the availability of essential medicines through health systems.

But Bettcher said things were on track. "The message to take home is that it's a work in progress and work has progressed. And we are on target, progress has NOT stalled, capital N-O-T."

The decision calls for a meeting to be held by the end of October to complete a comprehensive framework for monitoring chronic diseases, including a set of voluntary targets.

"My feeling is yes, we will see specific targets come October," said Dr. Tim Armstrong, WHO coordinator of chronic disease and health promotion.

Over the past decade, the WHO has declared war on so-called lifestyle diseases.

In 2005, it clinched the 2005 Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), the world's first public health pact, aimed at reducing tobacco use and exposure to harmful smoke by regulating tobacco products, advertising and sponsorship.

Two years ago, the WHO launched a strategy for tackling the harmful use of alcohol, blamed for causing four percent of deaths worldwide. Ministers agreed to try to curb binge drinking and other growing forms of excessive alcohol use through higher taxes on alcoholic drinks and tighter marketing restrictions.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Michael Roddy)