Opening remarks by Dr Bernhard Schwartländer, WHO Representative in China, at the WHO/NHFPC joint media workshop on NCDs

Beijing, China
12 November 2013

Honourable Mr Mao Qunan, Dr Wang Bin, Dr Wang Yu,
Media colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

Thank you for joining us at this media workshop co-hosted by the World Health Organization and the National Health and Family Planning Commission, with the theme of "Tackling Non-communicable Diseases, China in Action".

NCDs including cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes, are the number one public health threat, killing more than 36 million people each year globally.

In the WHO’s Western Pacific Region, NCDs account for around 75% of all deaths. Here in China that figure is even higher – more than 80% of all deaths, or around 8 million deaths every year.

The burden of death and disease from NCDs around the world is growing rapidly, driven largely by a set of modifiable risk factors – smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, poor diet, physical inactivity. And China is at the epicentre of the NCD epidemic: how China responds to the NCDs challenge will shape the health and wellbeing of China, and the world’s population, for decades to come.

By 2015, just two years from now, the burden of death and disease from NCDs will have already cost the Chinese economy an estimated half a trillion dollars in national income foregone in just 10 years. That figure will grow, likely exponentially, in the coming decades, without action to tackle the risk factors which are propelling the growth in the NCD epidemic.

NCDs are a grave public health threat for three reasons:

  • Many deaths from NCDs are premature;
  • Many NCDs are preventable;
  • Contrary to the common belief that NCDs are diseases of affluence, the vast majority of premature deaths from NCDs occur in low and middle income countries.

If just hundreds of young and middle-age people in poor countries were dying every year from a virulent new strain of flu, you – the media – would all write it up as a public health emergency.

And there would, rightly, be a global outcry if millions were dying when there was an intervention or interventions available that could prevent these deaths.

The good news on NCDs is that there is a set of interventions that can prevent many of the premature deaths: the implementation of a set of proven, cost-effective policies to reduce the major risk factors for NCDs.

The WHO Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs 2013-2020 signed off by the World Health Assembly earlier this year aims to support national governments in their efforts to do this, in order to achieve the global target of a 25% relative reduction in premature mortality from NCDs by 2025.

The Plan signed off by Member States also includes a set of global targets for reducing the major NCD risk factors – salt intake, tobacco use, raised blood pressure, harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity, and obesity.

The target of reducing premature mortality by 25% by 2025 is ambitious.

But it is achievable, and it is now up to all of us to help achieve it – by supporting action to change policies and behaviours, to reduce the prevalence of risk factors which are condemning too many people in China and around the world to an early death right now.

This includes action to reduce smoking rates, improve diets through salt reduction and replacing trans-fats with unsaturated fats, reduce harmful consumption of alcohol, and encourage people to get more exercise.

Governments, clearly, have a role to play in this. Organisations like the WHO have a role to play. And you, our colleagues in the media, have a very important role to play – through helping to improve public awareness about health risks and promoting behaviour change to address them.

Interventions to reduce NCD risk factors are the equivalent of the vaccine which can prevent death and disease from a virulent infectious disease. They urgently need to be rolled out around the world, and when they are, millions of lives will be saved.

In China, we estimate that reducing premature mortality from NCDs by 25% in line with the global goal could prevent more than 6 million premature deaths between now and 2025 – on average, preventing more than 400,000 premature deaths every year.

The number of lives saved will grow over time with the population – and so too the social and economic benefits.

And make no mistake, the economic benefits of tackling NCDs are substantial: the World Bank estimates that in China, reducing mortality from cardiovascular disease alone by 1 per cent per year over the 30-year period 2010– 2040, could generate an economic value equivalent to 68 percent of China’s real GDP in 2010, or $10.7 trillion USD. That is a staggering figure when you think about it.

This is why we believe setting global targets for reducing the burden of chronic disease – and measuring progress towards them – is a critically important mechanism for tackling the NCD challenge.

And so we are very pleased to be here today with senior officials, experts and opinion leaders to discuss how the NCD burden can be reduced in China, in line with the global targets.

Good progress has already been made: the China National NCD Plan highlights the importance of both primary prevention of NCDs (though promoting healthy life styles), as well as secondary prevention – including through improving treatment and management of NCDs especially in primary health care.

But there is much more to do. Achieving the global targets will be very challenging in China. And it will require considerable resources, as well as the support of the broader community, and you, our colleagues in the media. But the cost of inaction, of doing nothing – in lives lost, and social and economic prosperity foregone – is too great a price to pay.

WHO, along with its many national and international partners, is committed to supporting the Government of China to reduce the NCD burden.

Let's work together to fight against NCDs, helping people live longer and healthier lives.

Thank you.