'Non-communicable diseases' is the hot buzzword in public health at the moment. They are the diseases you get if malaria, AIDS, typhoid etc. don't get you first. Thanks to mankind's virtual triumph over those nasty viruses, 'non-communicable diseases' are on the rise. This is good news, since they mostly kill us off in old age. As much as we might like to indulge in the narrative of people dying in their sleep from old age, the chances are they died of a disease—probably one that was respiratory or circulatory in nature.
It's not all good news, of course. Some of these diseases are preventable to some extent, or—more accurately—we can reduce the risk of getting them to some extent. Last year, a Cancer Research UK report claimed that 40 per cent of cancers could be avoided by (fairly dramatic) lifestyle changes. This is almost certainly an exaggeration, but even if true it remains the case that most cancers are unavoidable. Moreover, if you duck one non-communicable disease, there will be another one waiting for you a little further down the line (most cancer deaths involve people over the age of 75). So long as the population keeps ageing and the nasty viruses are kept at bay, there is little prospect of reducing mortality from non-communicable diseases as a category.
And yet, it seems that your government (wherever you live) has decided it can do just that.
NGOs applaud government leadership on non-communicable disease death reduction
After an intense week of lobbying by NGOs during the 65th World Health Assembly, governments are poised to agree to a historic target to reduce premature deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs - including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases) by 25% by 2025. The target is expected to be endorsed by all 194 of the World Health Organization’s Member States on Saturday, 26 May.
The NCD Alliance, a global advocacy organization representing a network of more than 2,000 civil society organizations led a major lobbying campaign, and mobilized its network to ensure this target was secured.
This would be a more impressive announcement if it was accompanied by the (admittedly unlikely) news that scientists have (a) found out what causes most cancers, and (b) have found a cure/vaccine, but they have not, nor does such a breakthrough seem imminent. Instead, what we have is a prohibitionist's charter...
In addition to adopting an overarching target, Member States have committed to reach a consensus, before the end of October, on additional targets on tobacco, blood pressure, salt reduction and physical activity; and to consider adding further on targets relating to alcohol, obesity, fat intake, cholesterol and health systems responses such as availability of essential medicines for NCDs.
If, as these lobbyists claim, 194 countries are about to sign this quasi-treaty, you can expect to hear much more about our 'legal obligations' to control eating, drinking, smoking and—the mind boggles—'physical activity' for many years to come. You may recall last year's charming article from Jonathan Waxman titled 'To avoid cancer, let the State dictate your diet' which was itself based on the claim that lifestyles cause 40 per cent of cancer. That is only the start and it is, of course, why the puritans, bureaucrats, nannies and headbangers of public health are so keen on the idea of 'non-communicable diseases', because it gives them what every trigger happy army general wants—a war without end.
(Thanks to Rob Lyons for letting me know about this story. When he e-mailed it to me I asked him what these people thought we should die of if not non-communicable diseases. "Boredom", he said. True that.)