Measuring the true impact of NCDs

To meet a challenge, you must take its full measure. We should measure the health loss from noncommunicable diseases and use those measurements to guide investment and innovation.
To meet a challenge, you must take its full measure. We should measure the health loss from noncommunicable diseases and use those measurements to guide investment and innovation.

When the Ebola virus reemerged, the world’s public health community called for better tracking of infections and deaths from the disease. The same urgency could be applied to a range of NCDs that cause widespread suffering and death.

Take chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). It causes more than 70 million years of healthy life lost, making it the fifth leading driver of disease burden globally. In Sri Lanka, COPD, diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and low back pain make up four of the top five leading causes of premature death and disability.

These diseases rob people of health over decades while a swift-moving virus like Ebola can kill in a matter of days. Can we finish the unfinished agenda of childhood, maternal, and infectious diseases, especially vaccine-preventable diseases, while bringing more focus to the chronic conditions that cause massive health loss worldwide? We can and must.

Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, chronic illnesses devour health resources, even in financially stable countries. In low-resource settings in Africa and elsewhere, as NCDs become more prominent, they could challenge the ability of health systems to adequately address disease outbreaks like Ebola. Currently, development assistance for health is rightly focused on lessening the toll exacted by nutritional disorders and infectious diseases. We have not truly assessed how a rising NCD burden would change the financial needs of countries.

To do that, we must rethink how we gather information about levels and trends in musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular diseases, mental health conditions, and other NCDs. We need true surveillance through surveys, biological sampling, and disease registries. Rapid diagnostics for cancers and other diseases are available to be deployed with smart investments and could radically transform the health landscape.

To meet a challenge, you must take its full measure. We should measure the health loss from NCDs and use those measurements to guide investment and innovation.