London: Chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease and diabetes cause more deaths than all other diseases combined, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.
In a global report on so-called non-communicable diseases, or NCDs, the United Nations health body said such diseases had reached epidemic proportions and now pose a greater threat than infectious diseases like malaria, HIV and tuberculosis (TB).
"The NCD epidemic exacts an enormous toll in terms of human suffering and inflicts serious damage to human development in both the social and economic realms," the report said.
"This state of affairs cannot continue. There is a pressing need to intervene. Unless serious action is taken, the burden of NCDs will reach levels that are beyond the capacity of all stakeholders to manage."
NCDs, which include heart disease, cancer, diabetes and respiratory conditions, accounted for 36 million, or 63 percent, of the 57 million deaths worldwide in 2008.
Yet that burden could be significantly reduced, with millions of lives saved and much suffering avoided, if people did more to avoid major risk factors like smoking, drinking and being overweight, the WHO said.
It found that almost 6 million people die from tobacco use every year -- both directly from smoking, and indirectly from second-hand smoke. By 2020, this number will increase to 7.5 million, accounting for 10 percent of all deaths worldwide.
Another 3.2 million people each year due to a lack of physical activity, at least 2.8 million people die a year as a result of being overweight or obese, and 2.5 million people are killed as a result of drinking harmful levels of alcohol.
A special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly is scheduled for September in New York to talk about the rising threat of NCDs, and the WHO`s global status report sought to set out ways to map the epidemic, reduce its major risk factors and improve healthcare for those who already suffer from NCDs.
It said the epidemic had already ballooned beyond the current capacity of poorer countries to cope, which is why death and disability are rising disproportionately in these countries.
"As the impact of NCDs increases and as populations age, annual NCD deaths are projected to continue to rise worldwide, and the greatest increase is expected to be seen in low- and middle-income regions," it added.
In many developing countries where the health focus is often on infectious diseases, chronic illnesses are often detected late, when patients need extensive and expensive hospital care.
Most of this care is unaffordable or unavailable, or is covered with out-of-pocket payments which can drive patients and their families into poverty, further risking their health.
Nearly 80 percent of NCD deaths occur in low-and middle-income countries and are the most frequent causes of death in most countries, except in Africa, the WHO said. But even in Africa, NCDs are rising rapidly and are expected to exceed other diseases as the most common killers by 2020
The WHO said three priorities for action were surveillance -- to monitor chronic diseases, prevention -- to let people know the about risks and help them adapt lifestyles, and healthcare -- to improve treatment and access for those who are sick.
It listed its top 10 "best buys", including banning smoking in public places, enforcing tobacco advertising bans, restricting access to alcohol and cutting salt in food, and said these steps should be taken now to produce "results in terms of lives saved, diseases prevented and heavy costs avoided".