WHO warns non-communicable diseases killing more people than ever before

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Non-communicable diseases account for seven of the world’s top 10 causes of death, a sharp increase from two decades ago, a new UN World Health Organization (WHO) study has found.

It said, however, that heart disease remains the leading cause of death globally.

The 2019 Global Health Estimates, released on Wednesday, “clearly highlight” the need for increased attention on preventing and treating cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases, as well as tackling injuries, according to WHO.

“These new estimates are another reminder that we need to rapidly step up prevention, diagnosis and treatment of non-communicable diseases,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

“They highlight the urgency of drastically improving primary health care equitably and holistically.”

The UN statement said Dr. Tedros also underlined the importance of strong primary health care for combatting non-communicable diseases as well as the coronavirus pandemic.

People living with pre-existing health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes and respiratory conditions, are at higher risk of complications and death due to COVID-19.

The statement said the study covers the years 2000 to 2019, prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. The next update to the estimates will include an assessment of the direct and indirect impact of the pandemic on mortality and morbidity.

According to WHO, heart disease has remained the leading cause of death at the global level for the last 20 years, but it is now killing more people than ever before, representing 16 per cent of total deaths from all causes.

The number of deaths from heart disease increased over fourfold, from 2 million since 2000, to nearly 9 million in 2019, it said.

Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are now among the top 10 causes of death worldwide, and deaths from diabetes increased by 70 per cent globally between 2000 and 2019.

The findings also pointed to a global decline in deaths from communicable diseases, though they remain major challenge in low- and middle-income countries. Deaths from tuberculosis, for instance, reduced by about 30 per cent.

The Global Health Estimates also found that life-spans have increased over the years, with a global average of more than 73 years (in 2019) compared to nearly 67 (in 2000). But on average, only 5 of those additional years were lived in good health.

“Disability is on the rise,” WHO said, explaining that to a large extent, the diseases and health conditions causing the most deaths are also responsible for most number of healthy life-years lost.

“Injuries are another major cause of disability and death,” the UN agency added, noting that there has been a “significant rise” in road traffic injuries since 2000, with the African region worst affected.

In the Americas, drug use emerged as a major factor in both disability and death: there was a nearly threefold increase in deaths from drug use disorders in the Americas between 2000 and 2019.

The region is also the only one for which drug use disorder is a top 10 contributor to healthy life-years lost due to premature deaths and disability.

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