Most of the world’s leaders, including Caricom prime ministers, will be making their way to the United Nations building in September to tackle one of the most difficult challenges our world faces: how to save the lives of 52 million people who are expected by 2030 to die each year of non-communicable diseases. High on the list are diseases of the heart and strokes, cancer, diabetes, and lung disease.
The historical evidence is indisputable. In 2008 alone more than 36 million died of such diseases according to a UN report circulated last Monday. The disturbing trend is that the majority were from developing countries and were below the age of 60.
In our region non-communicable diseases account for more than 50% of all deaths and, of these, 30% are due to heart disease.
This human tragedy also comes with a heavy financial cost. The World Economic Forum concluded that last year’s global bill was in the order of US$400 billion. For Barbados an earlier study by St Augustine Campus of University of the West Indies indicated that this figure was Bds$145 million and still rising.
Given the magnitude of the issue and the implications on all our lives, it is very reassuring to know that Prime Minister Stuart, Health Minister Inniss and his team of advisers, including Prof Hassell from the National Chronic Non-Communicable Diseases Commission, have taken the initiative to embrace many NGOs’ resources to help find a solution quickly. They will all also be at the UN meeting.
Already the Ministry of Health has begun national discussion aimed at stopping the marketing of unhealthy food products to children. The Heart & Stroke Foundation of Barbados (HSFB), in collaboration with CBC television, will be mounting a series of infomercials on better health. The GIS’s excellent half-hour video production devoted entirely to the special concerns of heart diseases among women and the role of the HSFB have recently been broadcast. The programme has been so popular that it has been repeated.
We are now at a stage where all the interested parties are gearing up for the big day in September. Hopefully they will produce a global agenda. Will this be enough? Will governments secure a clear commitment from the UN? What is the programme? And will there be sufficient funds to drive the project? All these and other burning issues will need answers. In the past we have seen, especially in times of natural disasters, great public sympathy and promises of generous financial help. Occasionally the resources required failed to materialise. The current economic recession will make this task even more testing.
So what should we do?
My suggestion is simple. The stakeholders should begin to identify specific actions and research needs at an early stage that will help to resolve the health care issues. As the President of the Heart & Stroke Foundation of Barbados, my wish list would be: national actions to reduce factors that lead to chronic diseases especially heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, obesity; more affordable medicines, and better health care in the Caribbean. My second wish is that the financial and other support arising from the UN summit be apportioned across different developing countries, including Barbados. The practice of automatically selecting the industrialised countries is now harder to justify than ever before.
This latter consideration is important particularly for the Caribbean; we have the technical skills, we are likely to be the beneficiaries of any research, and research in the Caribbean often is associated with significant cost savings, and yet we are often overlooked.
My final wish, which might be a little more difficult, is to ensure that implementation of outcomes from the UN summit, including research, should not be tied to the donor countries’ contributions where institutions in these countries are given the preference to implement major actions and research. They should be open to our universities, medical establishments and hospitals that meet the requirements of the tendering process.
We have an opportunity to save lives and reduce the cost of health. The next time we look at the figures, let’s hope we see a steep decline in deaths and in the cost of providing healthcare for all.
President of the Heart & Stroke
Foundation of Barbados