In Focus

Neglected diseases, NCDs pose global health risks post-COVID: WHO


Between 2020-2021, the COVID pandemic resulted in a colossal 336.8 million years of life lost globally, which equates to an average of 22 years of life lost for every excess death

The highly anticipated World Health Statistics report for 2023 published today by the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged immediate action to address the concerning lack of progress in global health. This report provides a comprehensive, objective, and comparable assessment of global health, highlighting its evolution and the critical areas in need of urgent intervention.

COVID-19 Cost in Lost Lives

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on global health. Between 2020-2021, the disease resulted in a colossal 336.8 million years of life lost globally, which equates to an average of 22 years of life lost for every excess death.

Beyond these staggering statistics, the pandemic has also magnified health inequalities both within and among nations. In India, as in many low and middle-income countries, populations with lower educational levels have been less likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, reflecting the stark disparities in access to quality healthcare and immunization services. 

Moreover, disruptions caused by the pandemic have further derailed many health-related indicators, reversing previously improving trends. While the period since 2000 has seen significant improvements in maternal and child health, with deaths falling by one-third and one-half respectively, diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis have seen a resurgence, leading to fewer people being treated for neglected tropical diseases.

The looming threat of noncommunicable diseases

The WHO report paints a worrying picture of the rising threat of non-communicable diseases. Despite notable improvements since 2000, the share of deaths caused annually by NCDs has grown to nearly three-quarters of all deaths. If this trend continues, NCDs are projected to account for approximately 86 percent of the 90 million annual deaths by mid-century (WHO’s 100th anniversary in 2048), translating to 77 million deaths due to NCDs—a nearly 90 percent increase in absolute numbers since 2019.

Essentially, this would mean that 77 million of these deaths will be due to NCDs – a nearly 90 percent increase in absolute numbers over 2019. In India, where NCDs like cardiovascular diseases, cancers, respiratory diseases, and diabetes are prevalent, this calls for an immediate and substantial increase in resources and efforts for prevention and control.

Stagnating progress

More recent trends indicate a slowdown in the annual rate of reduction (ARR) for many indicators, necessitating an urgent acceleration of efforts. 

From 2000 to 2015, the world saw a significant reduction in the global maternal mortality ratio. However, this trend has not been sustained in the subsequent years, with the rate of reduction stalling and the maternal mortality ratio increasing in some regions. This reversal has occurred despite an overall reduction in exposure to many health risks. 

On a regional level, the South-East Asia Region made the most substantial progress, while the African Region, despite a steady rate of reduction, still shows the highest maternal mortality ratio. To meet the SDG target, the global maternal mortality ratio needs to fall by 11.6% per year between 2021 and 2030.

Similarly, the reduction in tuberculosis incidence from 2015 to 2021 was only one-fifth of the way to the 2025 milestone of WHO’s End TB Strategy.

The report represents an essential tool for tracking progress and developing effective global and national health policies. This year’s report has also introduced a new section dedicated to climate change, recognizing its significant role in shaping global health. 

Climate change: A silent crisis in global health

As we face environmental degradation, we also confront an equally pressing health crisis. Air pollution is a notable example – an estimated 99 percent of the global population breathes unhealthy levels of fine particulate matter, contributing to a range of health problems. 

In India, where air pollution is a persistent issue, this environmental health risk warrants urgent attention.

Additionally, the increasing prevalence of obesity, linked to changing lifestyles and environments, shows no immediate sign of reversal. This increasing burden underlines the need for comprehensive policies addressing environmental and lifestyle factors contributing to obesity.

These challenges highlight the urgency for a strengthened global response. The report underscores the need to scale up efforts and accelerate progress, calling for global, regional, and national priorities to be set. Timely.