‘I wish I had AIDS and not diabetes.’

Published: 07 December 2010

“I wish I had AIDS and not diabetes.”

The words are projected in large letters across the screen. The quote, Professor Jean Claude Mbanya explains to the silent conference room, was taken from a Cambodian man similar to hundreds of others he sees in his home country of Cameroon. The statement is not a strange as it might seem. After all, if he had AIDS, treatment would be free and easily accessible. As he has diabetes, there is simply no help for him at all.

Non-Communicable diseases – diseases that aren’t infectious, unlike AIDS, or malaria - are often neglected and underestimated in low and middle income countries. However, illnesses such as diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer are just as important in the developing world as in nations such as the UK and the rest of Europe - and often they are more common and deadlier. Of the 31 million lives these diseases take each year, 28 million are in the developing world.

Anne Keeling, Head of the NCD Alliance, paints a bleak image of those in developing countries with chronic illnesses. “In Belgium, a child with type one diabetes could live to be 60, 70, 80,” she said. “In Africa, the same child would have a life expectancy of just six months.” 

We do have the power to fight these diseases – because we’re fighting them too, in our hospitals and in our health centres, every single day. Medicines that could save these lives can take just pennies to produce – but a lack of basic healthcare in the developing world, and of provision and training for these illnesses where health centres do exist, means that sufferers face desperate problems.

For now, the Millennium development goals continue to dominate the action of aid organisations – so why not work to achieve them first and fight Non Communicable Diseases later? “Without combatting non-communicable diseases, we will not achieve the Millennium Development Goals,” says Mr Mbanya. “The World Economic Forum classes Non-Communicable diseases as the second biggest risk to economic problems.” Those in developing countries with NCDs are often trapped in a vicious cycle. Their illness means they struggle to work. Less work means less income – and healthcare bills steal any money left. Poverty is inevitable.

And as Badeua Samb from the World Health Organisation, points out, the infectious diseases the leaders of the world pledged to fight and NCDs are linked. “Some people can have more the one disease. We can cure someone of AIDS and then they die of a Non Communicable Disease. You can almost say it’s a waste of money.”

 With so many suffering and dying without help, many could ask why investment in fighting NCDs is no more than 3% of health aid budgets – a sum of $22 billion dollars worldwide. The reasons why are often a result of ignorance and self-interest. ”People want to have projects that can get results quickly so that people like Tony Blair can report on the effects four years later.” said. “Chronic diseases are long term issues. You are talking about prevention, primary care, secondary care and sometimes even tertiary care.”

Time, however, may be running out before the NCD alliance can get their cause in the public spotlight: in 2030, experts predict that NDS will make up 69 per cent of deaths and that 80 per cent of these deaths will be in low and middle income countries. However at most two to three per cent of overseas health aid will go towards treating them - or even as little as 0.5 per cent.

  With a UN summit focusing on these diseases taking place in 2011, all eyes will be on New York to see if the world’s misconception that NCDs are only diseases for the rich and the elderly. Until then, however, it seems that sufferers in the developing world will have to wait a little longer to have some hope for the future.