Montevideo, Uruguay, October 18, 2017 (PAHO-WHO) - The countries of the Americas have the world's highest levels of overweight and obesity, and lowest levels of physical activity, raising the risk of developing a noncommunicable disease (NCD), the leading cause of death in the region. To reverse this trend and save lives, all sectors of government, such as agriculture, commerce and urban development, must promote coherent public policies to create healthier environments that make healthy living the easy choice.

This was the message of the Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa F. Etienne today at the opening of the WHO World Conference on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD) in Montevideo, Uruguay.

"Many of the factors that lead to these diseases exist outside of the health system, and solutions can only be found through multisectoral approaches based on the inclusion of health in all government policies," said Etienne. "Meanwhile, we must ensure appropriate care for those living with an NCD, and is this regard, advances toward universal access and universal health coverage can have a tremendous impact on NCDs and saving lives," she added.

Dr. Etienne at at the opening of the WHO World Conference on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD) in Montevideo, Uruguay

"This requires countries to advance toward universal health and improve the quality of health services-focusing on the needs of vulnerable populations and strengthening primary health care. It also requires the availability of life-saving technologies and essential medicines," Etienne noted.

In the Americas, noncommunicable diseases, mainly cardiovascular diseases, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases account for about 80% of all deaths, 35% of which occur prematurely in people 30 to 70 years of age. Due to the magnitude of the problem, the countries of the world have committed to reducing premature mortality by one-third by the year 2030, taking action to address these diseases and their main risk factors: tobacco consumption, unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and abusive use of alcohol.

Solutions to reduce the burden of NCDs include banning advertising and raising taxes to reduce exposure to tobacco and unhealthy diets, and facilitating access to essential health services to protect people from these diseases.

The Director of PAHO highlighted the region's progress in establishing policies to control NCD risk factors, such as the implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. She congratulated Uruguay and its President Tabaré Vásquez for having faced down the tobacco industry, establishing the sovereign right of countries to legislate to protect the health of their citizens. "This not only sets a strong precedent for tobacco, but will help with other products that are harmful to health," said Etienne.

Etienne, who is also WHO's Regional Director for the Americas, underscored the need to ensure prevention and care for those at risk or living with an NCD. She argued that providing universal access and health coverage, with quality, without generating financial difficulties and focused on the needs of the most vulnerable population, "can have a tremendous impact on noncommunicable diseases and save lives".

Ministers of Health of the Americas have adopted an important resolution on Universal Access to Health and Universal Health Coverage.  "We have examples from countries such as Chile that has expanded access to cancer screening and treatment services.  Similarly Mexico, Jamaica and Brazil have ensured that their citizens have equal access to diagnosis and treatment for the major NCDs; illustrating the feasibility of integrating NCD services into primary care, ensuring referral for diagnosis and treatment and ensuring that costs associated with care do not restrict access," Etienne said.

The high cost of treating people with NCDs continues to be a major challenge for many governments, largely due to medications. "While increased government expenditures will be needed to comprehensively implement universal health, mechanisms need to be established to assure access to affordable, quality drugs. PAHO's Strategic Fund is based on a pooled procurement mechanism and improves affordability of medications for diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer.  We anticipate that it can help countries obtain low cost sustainable supplies of high quality NCD drugs," Etienne told officials at the Uruguay conference. 

"The health sector alone cannot adequately address NCDs, so as we deliberate over the next few days, I urge you look beyond the health sector, to a wide range of actors from all sectors including education, agriculture, sports, transport, urban planning, environment and more so, to the ‘whole of government and the whole of society'," Etienne concluded.