Health starts where people live, labor, learn, play and pray, not just what happens to you in the doctor’s office, says Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That sentiment will take center stage this month as the U. N. General Assembly convenes in New York City and takes on the number-one killer in the world: Non-communicable diseases, including cancer, lung disease, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
The rising tide of such diseases throughout the global community has pushed public health officials to assemble a two-day high-level meeting addressing not only treatment of these illnesses, but more importantly, the outside factors that exacerbate them.
Koh focuses on the common misconceptions surrounding non-communicable diseases, especially the notion that these chronic illnesses only affect wealthy countries. He outlines the devastating effects these illnesses have on all nations, rich and poor, claiming two-thirds of deaths worldwide. Interestingly, Koh notes that 80 percent of those deaths occur in middle- and low-income countries.
While many health policy leaders grasp the colossal impact of non-communicable diseases, constructing a plan to prevent them is far more complicated. Koh discusses in detail tobacco use and its status as the number one global health threat.
Koh expands on the complexities that accompany efforts to prevent tobacco use, namely the capital-rich tobacco industry.
Koh stresses that language regarding the inherent conflict of interest between the tobacco industry and public health will be included in the upcoming declaration by the United Nations. The assistant secretary also discusses time-tested efforts to diminish tobacco use, such as raising both the price of tobacco and awareness of its harmful effects. The swift implementation of these efforts is crucial for nations in Africa and East Asia where tobacco addiction exists at alarming rates, he says, adding that there are more smokers in China than there are people in the United States, a frightening statistic that demonstrates the need for action now.
In addition, the U.N. high level meeting will tackle the rise of diabetes and obesity, subjects that U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has identified as growing threats to Americans health and well being. As in the case of tobacco use, the fight to curb unhealthy eating habits and excessive alcohol intake will inevitably clash with the powerful food and alcohol industries.
The high-level meeting on non-communicable diseases will mark only the second time in history a health issue has been placed at the forefront of the U.N. General Assembly, preceded only by the 2001 confab on the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other infectious diseases.