Cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes kill more than 36 million people worldwide each year.
The diseases disproportionately affect low- and middle-income countries where 29 million deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCD) occur, and affect people of younger ages than those in the U.S. or Western Europe. They are the leading cause of death in all regions except Africa, but current projections indicate that by 2020 the largest increases in NCD deaths will occur in Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
In the U.S., awareness and fundraising for these causes are already high because we have a strong network of civil society organizations like the American Lung Foundation and the American Heart Foundation. But in the developing world, especially Africa, there have not historically been those types of citizen-activation groups – there are no fundraisers or charity walks.
But that changed in early 2014 when the first such grassroots activation group launched in East Africa.
The East Africa NCD Alliance Initiative unites NCD alliances in Uganda, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya and Rwanda under the guidance of the Danish NCD Alliance.
The new initiative is aimed at influencing national governments in East Africa to increase political priority and resources for NCDs, and promote the importance of NCDs in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.
“Basically we want to be the advocate of patients rights,” said Constance Kekihembo, leader of the East Africa NCD Alliance secretariat in Uganda.
NCDs are a cross-border issue, and have brought together many activist across political lines in Africa to advocate for local food industries to cut down on added sugar and salt as they have been forced to do elsewhere in the world, and for governments to institute fiscal policies in line with the future of theie people, she said.
“It’s not like in Europe where the systems are clear,” Kekihembo told Good Days from CDF by phone.
“People cannot afford medications for cancer or diabetes.”
“That has had a very big effect on our population, the youth and elderly are dying silently and countries are not really concerned,” she said.
The East Africa NCD Alliance advocates for more affordable prices and access to better medicine and technology as well as universal health coverage and a focus on early detection.
“People are reporting late to health centers because they do not detect simple things early on,” she said.
Cardiovascular diseases account for most NCD deaths, or 17.3 million people annually. For this and many other diseases, the biggest risk factors are tobacco use, physical inactivity, the harmful use of alcohol and unhealthy diets.
Educating people on the dangers of these risk factors is one important step, but another is to bring taxation for tobacco companies in line with the dangers they pose, Kekihembo said.
Preliminary data from a World Economic Forum sponsored study predicted a $35 trillion economic output loss from 2005 to 2030 due to diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, and COPD, according to a Harvard news report.
The East Africa NCD Alliance is trying to bring parliament and stakeholders to change that predicted future, Kekihembo said.
“We have been able to do all this because we got support from Denmark,” she said.
The Alliance has had planning meetings in Uganda, drafted a reporting benchmark, and presented in front of the United Nations in New York in July, and are planning an annual conference in November.
The communicable disease landscape in Africa now is dire, and drawing international attention, but when it comes to non-communicable diseases, “we can’t afford to wait for tomorrow,” Kekihembo said.