Why We Cannot Afford to Ignore Non-Communicable Diseases Anymore
By Robert Aseda
Long thought to be ‘rare’ diseases affecting only the old and the rich, Non-Communicable Diseases are increasingly establishing themselves as a global nuisance, especially in middle and low-income nations. Report after report reminds us that these not-so-talked about diseases are claiming more and more lives, reducing the quality of life, depleting family and community resources with astronomical medical fees and generally leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.
According to an October 2014 UN Task Force Report on Kenya’s Fight on NCDs, about three out of ten deaths in Kenya are due to non-communicable diseases. Non-communicable diseases, especially among young people, are particularly worrying because of the unresolved threat of communicable diseases, especially sexual and reproductive health and right concerns. This has resulted in an unprecedented double burden of disease not only causing deaths and infirmity now but threatening even the upcoming decades of their lives. With this threat, the constitutional guarantee to the highest attainable standard of healthcare looks more than ever a distant mirage never to be realized.
Whereas the Division of Non Communicable Diseases and other state actors within the Ministry of Health and without have made significant efforts in improving the policy and legal environment of non-communicable diseases including by development of Kenya National Strategy for the Prevention and Control of NCDs 2015-2020 and the overarching National Health Policy 2014-2030, there still remains a lot to be done by stakeholders in combating this threat.
It is unacceptable that 72 Kenyans die every day from cancers with even more deaths from the other big four of Cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases and diabetes adding to this tally. The First Lady while describing the dire state of maternal mortality in Kenya described it visually as a situation where pregnant women board a minibus and crash every day. What words would we then use for this high figures? Four ‘matatus’ crashing daily? A major terrorist attack daily?
There is a need for increased awareness on the burden of non-communicable diseases, not just for personal behavior change, but also for generating public support for people-centered solutions. Dr. Kibachio, the head of Non-Communicable Diseases reminds us that in this era of public participation in governance, everybody has a role to play in terms of generation of ideas. Most importantly, young people must be meaningfully involved in the battle against non-communicable diseases, not just as a constitutional right but as an important part of society, and with more knowledge on what exactly ails them. They may not have the jargon, but their ability to do more with less, their networks and energy are already key resources in this fights.
The media is another critical ally in the fight against non-communicable diseases. The role of the media in shaping the development agenda can never be ignored. Effective use of media will not only generate public support for increased prioritization of NCDs, but it will also help in mobilizing other like-minded organizations, interest groups, and stakeholders to build a movement to advocate for allocation of resources for the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases.
Whereas the major risk factors of physical inactivity, poor diet, tobacco and alcohol use are highly modifiable at the individual level, there is a need for increased prioritization by policy makers to tackle non-communicable diseases. There is a need to increase domestic resource allocation for prevention, control, and management of this diseases. It is unfortunate that most counties with the highest burden of NCDs including cosmopolitan Nairobi region have allocated limited resources in their budgets. This has turned these diseases into death sentences, as the vast majority of Kenyans are not able to access essential curative and palliative services.
Devolution of healthcare provides an immense opportunity for increased prioritization of major challenges facing the people. Yet the spirit of public participation in governance including in key process of developing County Integrated Development Plans, Strategies, and the budget-making process has not been fully adhered to. Where it has been done, it has just been a smokescreen process to satisfy a key constitutional requirement and not a genuine process of harnessing the creativity of Kenyans in general and young people in particular.
Civil society organizations and young people must now effectively mobilize themselves to effectively engage in the budget-making process for the upcoming financial year and make themselves heard for funding for non-communicable diseases.
If we are to realize our development goals including Kenyan Vision 2030 of being an industrialized, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 and achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals, good health is critical; not just as a goal in itself but as a necessary condition to realize all the other development goals. As such, as we lay emphasis on the threat of non-communicable diseases, it’s important that we don’t in any way remove our eyes from the major communicable diseases that we have yet to bid goodbye.