Growing ‘Epidemic’ of Heart Attacks, Strokes, Cancer, Diabetes Threatens China’s Economic and Social Well-Being

July 26, 2011

Addressing non-communicable diseases could let China set an example for the world

BEIJING July 26, 2011 – Non-communicable diseases (NCD)[1] such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and chronic respiratory illnesses are China’s number one health threat, accounting for over 80 percent of annual deaths and contributing to 68.6 percent of the country’s total disease burden, says a World Bank report released today.

While this rising ‘epidemic’ has serious implications for the country’s future prosperity, the report suggests that China can seize the opportunity to respond effectively, providing a powerful example for other countries worldwide where an increase in these diseases is becoming a major challenge. 

The report Toward a Healthy and Harmonious Life in China: Stemming the Rising Tide of Non-Communicable Diseases was prepared in coordination with the Chinese Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, based on assessments conducted by the World Bank in 2008-2010. It presents evidence on the economic and social consequences of explosive increases in NCDs in China and proposes a range of policies and strategies to confront and prevent them.

According to the report, the number of cases of cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, diabetes and lung cancer among Chinese people over 40 will double or even triple over the next two decades if effective prevention and control strategies are not implemented. This trend is rooted in the social, economic, and environmental changes the country has experienced in recent decades, in particular, the rapid aging of the population and exposure to health risk factors such as high smoking rates among males, growing obesity due to increased consumption of fast foods rich in fat and salt, sugar-rich soft drinks and decreased physical activity in cities.

 “First and foremost, it is the human toll that should concern policy-makers when addressing NCDs. Mounting medical costs have a severe impact on individual and families when NCD occurs, and loss of loved ones causes immense grief that could have been avoided with the right policies in place”, said Klaus Rohland, World Bank Country Director for China. “But there is substantial economic cost associated with NCDs as well.”

For example, estimates for China presented in this report indicate that the economic benefit of reducing cardiovascular diseases by one percent per year over a 30-year period (2010–2040) could generate an economic value equivalent to 68 percent of China’s real GDP in 2010, more than US$10.7 trillion.

If an effective response is not mounted, warns the report, the disease burden will aggravate the economic and social impact of the expected population increase of older citizens and a smaller workforce in China.  The report notes that a less healthy workforce and an elderly population that is chronically ill will increase the odds of a future economic slowdown and pose significant social challenges in China.

The report identifies the coming ten years as a critical time for China to prevent and control the ‘epidemic’, stressing that much of the country’s NCD burden can be avoided or managed by adopting good practices that have been proven effective internationally, tailored to local conditions.

“Cost-effective policy options exist for adopting a comprehensive multisectoral response to deal with NCDs in China,” said Shiyong Wang, a World Bank Senior Health Specialist and the lead author of the report. “With more healthy behavior, improved socioeconomic environments conducive to health, and expanded access to quality health services, not only do people live longer, but their quality of life is also improved by the reduction of sickness and disability.” 

Data from successful efforts in developed countries reveal that health improvements occur in a shorter time frame than commonly believed – within a year or a few years rather than decades – after the reduction and elimination of the exposure to major health risk factors.

According to Patricio Marquez, a World Bank Lead Health Specialist, as co-author of the report: this can be accomplished through higher excise taxes on tobacco and alcohol products, regulatory measures to curtail advertisement and restrict smoking in public places, information, education and communication activities to educate the population about these risks, as well as a redesigned health system that gives people timely access to quality medical care, particularly to well organized and funded primary health care services.”

The report concludes that a healthier and more productive population is critical to ensuring sustainable economic growth and harmonious social development in China over the medium and longer term.

[1] NCDs are a set of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes, characterized by a long latency period, prolonged clinical course and debilitating manifestations.

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