Over the past week, we have celebrated some of the most extraordinary advances in physics, chemistry, medicine, economics and, of course, peace, as this year's Nobel Prize winners have been announced. Beyond these iconic prizes, there are other remarkable achievements equally worthy of our attention. Just last month, UNAIDS revealed that new HIV infections among adults and children were estimated at 2.3 million in 2012, a 33% reduction since 2001; AIDS-related deaths have dropped by 30% since the peak in 2005. These numbers show that in the space of little over a decade, there has been extraordinary progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
We need to draw lessons and inspiration from these achievements, but also be realistic that infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis cannot be consigned to the past. They remain a significant threat, particularly in today's mobile, interconnected and urbanised world. In fact, the threat posed by infectious diseases will only grow with up to two billion people projected to be living in slums by 2030, antimicrobial resistance on the rise, new emerging viruses, and the increasing danger of bioterrorism. Most worryingly, the danger of a population-crippling pandemic remains very real. Over the past year I have been involved with the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, a group of international leaders working to identify how progress can be delivered on critical challenges such as addressing the global burden of chronic disease and the risks (and opportunities) associated with our hyper-connected world. Our report, Now for the Long Term, highlights the deep global inequalities which persist in access to food, adequate sanitation, vaccines and health care, and aims to shift government and business priorities towards longer-term challenges that will shape our futures.
Long-term issues in global health were a major focus of our work. But it is not only infectious diseases on which we must act to enhance the health, security, and prosperity of future generations. As Commissioners, we believe the threat of non-communicable diseases, such as stroke, cancer, diabetes and dementia, cannot be ignored. They are now the leading cause of death in the world; with the exception of sub-Saharan Africa, NCD mortality exceeds that of communicable, maternal, perinatal and nutritional conditions combined. If this trend continues, we risk undoing our good work in tackling infectious diseases, meaning that generations who manage to avoid measles or river blindness may instead succumb to conditions often caused by preventable factors including poor diet and inactivity. The growth in NCDs has repercussions for wider society. Each 10 percent rise is associated with a 0.5 percent lower rate of annual economic growth. The cost of treatment for NCDs over the next two decades, as our populations grow larger and live longer, is estimated to be about USD $30 trillion. As is often the case, it is poor and disadvantaged communities that suffer the most; these sectors of society possess the highest rates of NCDs in high-income countries. Sub-Saharan Africa is facing a particularly heavy dual burden of disease, with NCDs rising but hunger and infectious diseases continuing to be grave problems.
Just as partnerships have played a significant role in facilitating progress on HIV/AIDS, new and reinvigorated avenues of cooperation are necessary to stem the burden of both infectious and non-infectious diseases. The WHO's 2005 International Health Regulations (IHR) must be made operational at both the national level and across borders to a much greater extent. The WHO should consider setting up regional rapid response teams that can better connect with outbreak alert networks monitoring social media and local rumours.
To better respond to the threat of NCDs, the Oxford Martin Commission recommends the creation of an action-focused global network centred on cities and dedicated to fighting the rise of NCDs. Drawing inspiration from recent public health innovations in New York City and elsewhere, the "Fit Cities" network could focus on cities with populations over five million, led by mayors and top municipal authorities include public health authorities, while also including the recently proposed UN Interagency Task Force, and civil society groups. This would require engaging with the food, beverage and alcohol industries, as well as developing and enforcing healthy food and drinking regulation beyond total smoking bans, and creating incentives for the production and marketing of healthy, tasty and affordable food.
The eradication of smallpox, the discovery of penicillin, the mapping of the human genome, the significant reduction in under-five mortality, developments in genetic technology, research and new treatments and growing access to health services have ensured that our potential to live longer and healthier lives is greater than at any other point in human history. That is definitely something to celebrate, yet leaders and citizens alike must make certain that we honour this responsibility and privilege.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, in conjunction with the release of the latter's reportNow for the Long Term, published by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. The report's recommendations aim to break the gridlock that undermines attempts to address the world's biggest challenges; to bridge the gap between knowledge and action; and to redress the balance between short-term political pressures and a need to secure a sustainable, inclusive and resilient future. To see all the posts in the series, clickhere. For more information on the report, click here.