‘I wish I had AIDS and not diabetes’

Published: 11 January 2011


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

While wealthy nations pour billions of pounds into saving those suffering with high profile killers such as AIDS, he will die simply because he has a disease that is underestimated by policy makers, misunderstood by the public, and judged by the press to be too boring for anyone to care about. We might think that the taxes we pay are helping anyone who is dying in poverty, but as officials obsessively concentrate on ‘big name’ illnesses such as malaria and TB, the aid we give is abandoning many of those who need it most.

The fight against non-communicable diseases, or NCDs – diseases that aren’t infectious, unlike AIDS, or malaria – stands as a shining example of how millions are dying sue to our narrow view of Africa’s problems. Illnesses such as diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease and cancer are just as important in the developing world as in nations like the UK. According to The NCD Alliance, the charity leading the fight against non-communicable diseases, of the 31 million lives these illnesses take each year, 28 million are in the developing world.

We do have the power to fight these conditions – because we’re fighting them too, in our hospitals and in our health centres, every single day. Even in the wealthiest nations, an illness like cancer is devastating, crushing the lives of sufferers, their friends and their family. There is only one, vital difference when these problems affect someone from the developing world: treatment is a luxury for the rich. Those diagnosed with cancer are usually only sent home to die.  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. We might be familiar with the names of these illnesses, but Anne Keeling, Head of the NCD Alliance, paints a bleak outlook for sufferers that we are not used to seeing. “In Belgium, a child with Type One diabetes could live to be 60, 70, 80,” she says. “In Africa, the same child would have a life expectancy of just six months.”

For now, however, the Millennium Development Goals continue to dominate the action – and the budgets - of aid organisations. Some activists point out that unless officials see the bigger picture; these targets will never be achieved. “Without combating 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.” While NCDs are not included in the Millennium Development Goals, sufferers in poorer nations often become trapped in a vicious circle. Their illness means they struggle to work. Less work means less income – and healthcare bills quickly steal away any money that’s left. Poverty is inevitable. And as Badeua Samb from the World Health Organisation asks: will the ability to treat people all over the world for AIDS be the landmark victory we hope for if they go home and immediately die of a NCD? “Some people can have more the one disease,” he explains. “You can almost say it’s a waste of money.”

 With so many suffering and dying without help, you could ask why investment in fighting NCDs is no more than 3 per cent of health aid budgets – a sum of $22 billion 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,” says Mr Samb. “Chronic diseases are long term.”

Development issues, such as NCDs, are long, complicated problems that can take years or even decades to show any kind of progress. Only 3.5 per cent of European newspaper coverage is dedicated to development and the stories that make the cut must be dramatic or high profile. NCDs do not fit into that category. Sufferers slip away in quiet, unexciting deaths. They do not make for good news stories and do not get the good coverage that many politicians would crave. “When you are a journalist you believe you will make a difference,” said Catherine Ray, spokeswomen for the European Commissioner for Development, “But you will be asked by your editor: will your story sell the newspaper?” The issue of NCDs will not catapult a politician to the front pages if they make a stand against it, unlike AIDS, or malaria, so they are less likely to push for it to be recognised.

Time, however, may be running out before The NCD Alliance can get their cause into the public spotlight. In 2030, experts predict that NCDs will cause 69 per cent of deaths, and that 80 per cent of these will be in the world’s poorer nations. However, it is also predicted that still as little as two to three per cent of overseas health aid will go towards treating them.

 With a UN summit focusing on these diseases taking place in 2011; The NCD Alliance is hoping they can drag the world’s attention to New York and change the world’s misconceptions of these problems. “We need Obama” admits Ms Keeling: “We need all those big names to come together if we want to make a difference.” 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.