UN Summit to Focus on Noncommunicable Diseases This Month

ASCO pressing President Obama to attend.

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For the second time since its inception 65 years ago, the United Nations General Assembly is holding a “High-level Meeting” that will focus on health. During the September 19–20 meeting, world leaders will shine a spotlight on the devastation that noncommunicable diseases are causing and have caused across the developed and underdeveloped world in recent decades, and what exactly needs to be done about it.

It is estimated that noncommunicable diseases (cancer, heart diseases, diabetes, and lung diseases) cause 60% of all deaths in the world each year. And cancer is chief among them. According to the World Health Organization, 7.6 million people die of cancer annually, which is more than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. And yet, noncommunicable diseases receive less than 3% of global development assistance.

Cancer Incidence Highest in Developing Nations

A recent UN report concluded that the cancer rate will reach more than 20 million annual cases by 2030, most of which are expected to occur in low- and middle-income countries. As people in these countries consume more tobacco products, adopt a Western diet, migrate to urban centers, and live longer (due in part to infection control), their cancer rate has increased, recently surpassing that of more developed nations.

In the United States and other more developed nations, access to care is widespread, but less-developed countries have a dearth of oncologists and treatments options. ASCO and many other organizations that focus on noncommunicable diseases see the summit as an opportunity to change all that.

The summit, to be held in New York, will be attended by heads of state, ministers, and other government representatives, representatives from civil society, the private sector and academia, and other stakeholders. As a member of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), ASCO has been working to try to persuade President Barack Obama to be there. ASCO has also worked to raise awareness among the Society’s members about the summit and its purpose, and has come up with recommendations for outcomes it would like to see from the meeting.

Cancer Needs to Be Political Priority

Eduardo Cazap, MD, PhDEduardo Cazap, MD, PhD, President of the UICC, Chair of the UN Civil Society Task Force, and an ASCO board member, said that cancer care leaders want reduction of the incidence of cancer and other noncommunicable diseases to be added to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. These goals constitute a blueprint for development priorities about which all the world’s countries and leading development institutions agree. The Millennium Development Goals range from reducing extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and are up for renewal in 2015.

“The main issue is that cancer is not on the political agenda in the majority of countries around the world,” said Dr. Cazap. “It’s not a priority. Diseases included in the Millennium Development Goals have far more opportunities for funding from the World Bank and many other sources.”

Economic Impact of Noncommunicable Disease

Dr. Cazap added that having a broad focus—looking at noncommunicable diseases as an economic issue as well as a health issue—is key. And noncommunicable diseases clearly are an economic issue. After all, the World Economic Forum has highlighted these diseases as one of the three most likely and most severe risks to the global economy.

“This is not only a question of making noncommunicable diseases part of a health-care agenda globally, but rather of making it a development issue,” said Dr. Cazap. “Instead of vertical action through the ministers of health, it is important to develop a horizontal agenda that includes ministers of economics. Otherwise, it will be difficult for the ministers of health to face the situation alone.”

The only other health-related UN High-level Meeting, held in 2001, focused on HIV/AIDS. That summit ultimately led to the creation of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, with positive results seen worldwide.

According to Dr. Cazap, this month’s meeting has the potential to garner commitment from heads of government for a coordinated global response to noncommunicable diseases, increasing financial resources to combat them, and saving millions of people from early death and devastating health complications. ■

© 2011. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.