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Defeating NCDs: A marathon effort to boost health for all

Jan 29. 2019
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By Thomas Cueni, 
Viriya Chongphaisal
Special to The Nation

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It’s clear we live in a global village when England striker Jamie Vardy of Thai-owned Leicester City praises Thai rocker Toon Bodyslam’s 2,215-kilometre charity run over 55 days in 2017. “Your actions create inspiration, motivation and hope,” Vardy said about Toon’s feat, which raised Bt1.37 billion for 11 public hospitals.

These words should resonate as the caravan of global health policy decision-makers comes to Bangkok this week to attend the renowned Prince Mahidol Award Conference (PMAC). This year’s edition will focus on tackling the rise of dangerous chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer that we call non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The Thai government, which is hosting the event, has much to be proud of as public health leaders and stakeholders gather from around the world to brainstorm on high priority global issues, to share knowledge and experience, and to propose concrete solutions and recommendations. Thailand’s record on the global health stage is commendable.

Seventy-four per cent of deaths in Thailand occur as a result of NCDs, which is higher than the global average, prompting the government to enact a five-year plan to combat it. It is commendable that Thailand is among the top 10 performers for NCD prevention and control, on a par with Finland and Norway. Thailand is also the first Asian country to ban trans-fat and the first developing (low- and middle-income) country to curb the glamour of smoking by adopting plain packaging for tobacco products.

The theme of this year’s PMAC is “The Political Economy of Non-communicable Diseases: A Whole of Society Approach”. The human, social and economic costs due to NCDs are substantial; over 70 per cent of all global deaths are due to NCDs. The projected cumulative lost output due to major NCDs in developing countries alone for 2011-2025 has been estimated at more than Bt1.481 trillion, if no additional mitigation efforts are put in place. This figure represents the “cost of inaction”. The good news is that for every Bt32 ($1) invested in cost-effective measures, or “best buys”, proposed by the WHO will yield a projected return of at least Bt220 by 2030: a powerful case for seeing health as an investment.

The fact that more than half of deaths and disabilities due to NCDs are preventable and linked to lifestyle choices means that prevention is half the answer to the NCD challenge. Thailand is taking strong measures to reduce smoking and encourage healthy eating habits. Thailand’s Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (Prema) is working collaboratively with civil society and government agencies in developing risk prevention programmes to reduce the risk factors associated with NCDs. Prema aims to promote the accessibility and availability of innovative medicines and ensure Thai people have a better quality of life. This commitment is not only to promote health and well-being among Thai citizens but also help to reduce government’s burden of treating NCDs in the future.

NCDs is an area where the innovative pharmaceutical industry brings solutions. As the research engine that invented nearly all the medicines we use today in generic form to treat NCDs, we continue to look for tomorrow’s new treatments. But we recognise that more efforts need to be made. It is frustrating that patients often have no access to life-saving drugs – even when these are off-patent and thus generally affordable – because of weak health systems or lack of awareness, early diagnosis or healthcare workers. Improving access to quality medicines requires sustainable and holistic approaches to strengthen health systems that are in sync with national priorities.

Since no single stakeholder can address NCDs alone, the biopharmaceutical industry seeks to be a meaningful and solutions-oriented partner in developing sustainable, appropriate and affordable solutions at global and local levels. Thus, a coordinated response – among and within sectors – is the right and only way to meet the systemic challenges posed by NCD prevention, treatment and care.

Thai envoy to the UN Vitavas Srivihok is currently preparing the first-ever UN high level meeting on universal health coverage, in New York in September. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom warned his executive board this week that, “The clock is now ticking on the ambitious targets we have set ourselves for the next five years: 1 billion more people benefiting from universal health coverage.” 

This is an epic task for the long haul, requiring as much vision and grit as Toon Bodyslam’s marathon. Yet the rewards will undoubtedly be great, in the form of shared goals and greater togetherness. All we need to do is work together and, as Toon said, “kao kon la kao” (“take one step at a time).

Thomas Cueni is director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations – Switzerland.

Viriya Chongphaisal is president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association (Prema) – Thailand. 

PMAC runs at the Centara Grand Bangkok Convention Centre at CentralWorld until Sunday.

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