Why Youth Need to Become Key NCD Advocates – Update from the World Cancer Leader’s Summit

This week, Director of Global Health Communications with the American Cancer Society, Rennie Sloan, provides an update and insights from the UICC’s World Cancer Leader’s Summit in Cape Town, South Africa.

Flickr / fabulousfabsThis week, more than 175 health leaders and UN and government officials convened at the World Cancer Leader’s Summit in Cape Town, South Africa. This important annual Summit, organized by the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC), focuses on addressing the glaring disparities in cancer control.

Cancer, a leading global killer, takes the lives of more than 7.6 million people per year. Together with diabetes and heart and lung disease, these noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) account for about 65% of global deaths.  Roughly two out of three deaths worldwide are from NCDs and 80% of these fatalities occur in low- and middle-income countries.

Yet, you would never know the enormous toll chronic diseases take from the current global health and development resources and policies. As of 2009, NCDs received less than 1% of  health and development assistance. While NCDs received historic and critical attention at the 2011 UN High-level Meeting on NCDs, there is still an urgent need for NCDs to be adequately resourced and integrated into UN and national government priorities.

 Bold action from top global leaders is needed to change the landscape of global public health. Equally important, grassroots activities need to be more strategically coordinated. The youth community could help with bolster grassroots efforts by amplifying the message for greater NCD resources.

It is significant that this cancer Summit takes place – for the first time – in Africa, where a newly released American Cancer Society report cites tobacco as a growing threat to the continent. Tobacco is a common risk factor to all four primary chronic diseases, accounting for 1 out of 6 NCD deaths.

The tobacco industry sees youth as one of the last frontiers of marketing, and has their sights set on Africa and many developing regions.. Big tobacco spends hundreds of millions of dollars trying to ensnare new users with clever campaigns designed to entice young people. If their deplorable tactics were better understood, the same demographic they hope to addict to deadly tobacco could become its most powerful foes.

photoWhile NCD advocacy among youth is sorely needed, governments and donors still need to fully realize what’s at stake with the projected rise of these diseases. They should take note that prevention of NCDs is cost-effective, not prohibitive. Pooja Yerramilli at the Harvard Global Equity Initiative offers this perspective.

“Many assume that the control of NCDs and chronic illnesses in low to middle-income countries is a Herculean task, as financial protection against such conditions is simply unaffordable in resource-constrained settings. However, gross inequities in incidence of preventable chronic illnesses and survival rates within and across countries can be mitigated in many cost-effective ways. In fact, countries such as Mexico, India, China, etc. have begun incorporating such diseases into national or state-level insurance schemes and implementing innovative prevention and screening programs.”

Without interventions, the World Economic Forum projects $47 trillion in lost productivity over the next two decades from NCDs. This means that Ministers of both Health and Finance should be participants at key meetings to discuss cancer, tobacco, and NCDs. Left unchecked, these diseases will perpetuate the cycle of poverty in addition to causing unnecessary and preventable deaths.

The NCD response seems painfully slow given their human and economic toll. But according to Ambassador Sally Cowal, Sr. VP of Global Health at the American Cancer Society, it was the same decades ago for the HIV/AIDS response.

cancerpnl“It’s like turning around the Queen Mary. It took a long time for the HIV/AIDS tide to turn and resources to catch up with the epidemic.”

And the NCD advocacy community today has at least one advantage the HIV community did not enjoy decades ago. Youth are better empowered now with social media to inform and unite them to demand action for significant change.  Passion and knowledge, combined with innovative technology tools, can put a face on these chronic diseases, a critical component in turning the tide in a global health crisis.

The young leaders of global health should take note of what Summit speakers and African leaders have reminded us – cancer and NCDs are becoming a human rights issue because they are projected to hit the most vulnerable populations the hardest.  Tools such as the UICC new World Cancer Declaration released this week can be used to disseminate advocacy messages that will allow the cancer community to reach out to the development, disability, education, employment and many other sectors for innovative partnership.  The refreshed Declaration can also be used to align with the emerging global NCD framework and the dialogue on the post-2015 development agenda.

But first, there is a clear need to define and widely share the NCD message. What are NCDs? Sadly, most people don’t know the ominous data on the diseases, much less the lexicon to define them. The current and future generation of youth are poised to loudly sound the alarm and to make sure the world hears it.

In her role as Director of Global Health Communications with the American Cancer Society, Rennie Sloan works to put cancer on the global health agenda at the UN and with the US Global Health Initiative. She has worked with U.S. and global NGO partners, governments, health leaders, the United Nations, the UN Foundation, the private sector, and WHO to promote awareness and advocacy for policy change to place cancer, heart disease, diabetes and respiratory diseases on the U.S. and UN agendas. 

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