September 24, 2022


Non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer are responsible for nearly three-quarters of deaths worldwide, but are often “overlooked and underfunded” because few understand their true impact, according to a new report from the World Health Organization released on Wednesday, which urges countries to tackle the problem with proven and cost-effective interventions that are readily available.

Key facts

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are one of the most significant public health and development challenges of the century and kill more than infectious diseases due to inaction, the WHO said in the report, which was released at the UN General Assembly in New York.

NCDs are responsible for the premature death of around 17 million people each year and kill someone under the age of 70 every two seconds, the report said.

The vast majority of these premature deaths, 86%, are in low- and middle-income countries, the report says, and many could be “prevented by investing in proven, cost-effective interventions.” he said American billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who is the WHO ambassador for NCDs.

Although all UN member states have committed to reducing the number of premature deaths from NCDs by a third by 2030 – one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – few countries are on track to achieve this, according to the report.

Although the risk factors for many NCDs are well understood – tobacco use and unhealthy diets kill more than 8 million each year, alcohol consumption another 1.7 million and physical inactivity 830,000, the WHO estimates – the report says little is being done because many they simply do not understand the scale of the problem.

The organization estimates that at least 39 million deaths from NCDs could be prevented by 2030 if “every country adopted interventions that are known to work”.

Big number

41 million people. That’s how many people are killed by NCDs worldwide every year, WHO estimates. Cardiovascular disease – a group of diseases that affect the heart and blood vessels – is the world’s biggest killer, responsible for 17.9 million deaths a year, according to the report. Other leading NCDs, some of the world’s biggest killers, are cancer (9.3 million deaths each year), chronic respiratory diseases (4.1 million) and diabetes (2 million). In addition to death, each NCD can have a huge impact on the quality of life of sufferers and make them more vulnerable to other diseases. This was illustrated during the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO said, when people living with non-communicable diseases faced worse outcomes than those without them. Covid was the third leading cause of death in the last two years, behind heart disease and cancer.

Key background

Advances in public health in recent decades mean that infectious or communicable diseases no longer dominate the leading causes of premature death worldwide. This issue, which has been well-known for decades in many rich countries, is now reaching alarming levels in rapidly developing countries such as China, although these health emergencies are often more hidden than infectious disease outbreaks. The invisible nature of NCDs is illustrated by the fact that they generally do not receive the resources and public health efforts commensurate with their impact, despite much more being known about what causes them. This is true for all countries, not just the less wealthy, and the report says all countries could do better. It emphasizes that large gains can be made with relatively little investment in NCD prevention and treatment. “The data paint a clear picture,” the WHO report said. “The problem is that the world isn’t watching it.”


The head of WHO dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the organization had renewed Bloomberg’s appointment as its global ambassador for NCDs and injuries for another two years. Bloomberg, a billionaire who co-founded financial information and media company Bloomberg LP in 1981 and served as mayor of New York for 12 years, was first appointed to the role in 2016. “As we continue to respond to this pandemic and prepare for the next one, we have seen the critical importance of addressing the main risk factor in Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths – non-communicable diseases,” Bloomberg said. Non-communicable diseases are “the world’s biggest silent killers – but they are often preventable by investing in proven, cost-effective interventions,” he added.

Forbes Valuation

76.8 billion dollars. That’s Bloomberg’s estimated net worth, according to Forbes’s real time companion. This makes him the 13th richest person in the world at the time of writing. Bloomberg has donated billions to charity, much of which has gone to initiatives designed to address the risk factors that drive NCDs, such as reduction tobacco use.

Further reading

Invisible numbers: The real scale of non-communicable diseases (WHO)

China’s ‘hidden epidemics’: preventable diseases that could reshape the nation (guardian)

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