Malaria, tuberculosis, HIV — these are the communicable diseases many people associate with death in the developing world. But increasingly diseases like diabetes, heart disease and conditions related to obesity have become the ticking “time bomb” that public health experts are desperately trying to prevent form exploding.
The Public Health Institute (PHI) convened the first-ever conference focusing exclusively on children and non-communicable diseases this week in downtown Oakland. Experts from around the world gathered to exchange ideas about how to prevent diseases that were once thought to be illnesses of the developed world from spreading globally. It’s no coincidence that the conference is being held in Oakland. “Poverty is a root cause of a lot of the problems that bring diseases like this to the fore, and it’s something that we grapple with on a daily basis in Oakland,” explained Jeff Meer, PHI’s special advisor for global health. “If we can get a handle on how poverty relates to illness in Oakland, then we can understand it in Bujumbura and Kigali.”
The four most common non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease and chronic heart disease. “Most of us think of them as illnesses that strike in rich, highly developed countries; but the fact is that there is a tidal wave, an epidemic of non-communicable diseases that is striking populations all over the world, and striking, frankly with great ferocity in very poor places that have fewer resources than we do to deal with them,” Meer told me. A tidal wave indeed — two-thirds of deaths worldwide can be attributed to NCDs according to Meer.
The presentations focused on preventing risk factors like obesity early, before they become a problem — a big challenge when 42 million children under the age of five are obese or overweight worldwide and nearly 35 million of them live in the developing world.
California has been a leader in preventing NCDs. “We are hearing today from some of the leading experts in the field who are based here in California because the funding exists here, the support exists here and quite frankly the track record exists here,” explained Meer. Mary Pittman, the President and CEO of the Public Health Institute pointed to California’s leadership on anti-smoking campaigns as an example. “California was really one of the leading states to reduce tobacco consumption. And what we’ve been able to show is a decline in many of the diseases associated with tobacco consumption,” she said.
California leads the way in some prevention areas like child nutrition. One presentation stressed a social media campaign targeting “tweens,” kids aged 9-11, who are open to messages of change and often bring what they learn back to their parents and their communities.“Nine-to-eleven year olds are at that age when they are becoming more active consumers,” said Steve Kempster, a social marketing specialist working on the California Department of Health’s Network for a Healthy California program. All the presentations stressed that in order to affect the health outcomes for children, healthy behaviors have to be taught early.
Much of the money for non-communicable disease prevention is embedded in federal funding for food stamps, school lunches, school breakfast and the Affordable Care Act. If California wants to keep innovating in the field of public health it will have to aggressively continue to pursue federal funds for these activities, something that PHI actively supports. “California has a lot to learn and we have a lot of ground to make up,” Matthew Marsom, vice-president for public health policy and advocacy at PHI told me. While California initially led in reducing tobacco consumption, other states have passed it in levying higher taxes, he said.
This post has been updated to reflect the correct number of overweight and obese children both worldwide and in developing countries.