LA JOLLA – Four killers are claiming the lives of millions of people in the Americas.

Cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and respiratory disease are killing almost 4 million people every year in the Western Hemisphere, said Dr. Jon Kim Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), during a Dec. 6 executive roundtable at the Institute of the Americas.

“For the first time in the history of mankind, chronic diseases are killing more people than infectious diseases,” Andrus said. “In the Americas, chronic disease is the leading cause of death for some 3.9 million people a year.

“We face this situation as a direct result of our own apathy and neglect of how best to turn back the rising tide of chronic disease,” he said.  As a result, “we will be the first generation not to live as long as our parents.”

Chronic disease in many countries is both the cause and effect of poverty, Andrus said, and is often linked to gender, ethnicity and a lack of education.

In many developing countries, “50 percent of the people have high blood pressure and they don’t even know it. And 50 percent of the people who know they have high blood pressure are not on the essential medicines.” [inset side=left]“For the first time in the history of mankind, chronic diseases are killing more people than infectious diseases.”[/inset]

The Americas “is the fattest region in the world,” Andrus said, “a clear precursor to many of the chronic diseases that lead to suffering and premature mortality. Although many families know what to eat, healthy foods are not accessible.”

The suffering that these killer diseases inflict on people is largely preventable, he said, but without an effective health care system the number of people affected by chronic disease will continue to rise.

Aside from the loss of life and quality of life, what is at stake?

Andrus said researchers at Harvard estimate “if we maintain the status quo over the next two decades, the estimated global cost of chronic disease will be approximately $30 trillion for the four big killers. The regional implications are astronomical. Health care systems as we know them will not be able to survive this economic onslaught.”

To respond to this growing health care crisis, Andrus said, “I’m putting forward a call to action: We’ve run out of time. The time for action is now.”

“In the public health world, time equals more people dying,” he said.  “It’s that sense of urgency that we need to inject.”

The solution goes beyond health organizations and will require and all-of-society approach, he said.

“There are certainly some immediate actions that are highly cost-effective best practices that will allow us to save more lives more quickly. But these will require us all working together,” said Andrus. “No one government, no one partner or donor agency, no one NGO can do this alone. We must work together.”

PAHO, the world’s oldest international public health agency which was founded in 1902 in response to President Teddy Roosevelt’s concerns about regional public health, has created the Pan American Forum on Chronic Disease Prevention in the Americas.

PAHO also annually convenes ministers of health to discuss a regional plan of action that is replicated in every country in the region. The action plan focuses on four key areas: policy, risk factor reduction, health system capacity and monitoring and research.

“We have an unprecedented opportunity to save more lives more quickly and with interventions that focus on prevention,” Andrus said. “The alternative, complacency, is just unacceptable.”


UC San Diego Health Sciences