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August 6, 2019

Over 80m Pakistani living with one or more NCDs or lifestyle diseases, AKU launches think to tackle the issue

Karachi: Approximately 80 million Pakistanis are living with one or more Non-Communicable Diseases or NCDs – a set of chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, conditions caused by tobacco abuse, and mental disorders – that are predominantly caused by poor lifestyle choices and environmental risk factors such as pollution and urbanisation.

Despite being the country’s top cause of death and the leading cause of poor quality of life, the country continues to pursue a fragmented approach with little coordination among stakeholders, experts said. Pakistan is far from meeting the targets set by the WHO for the National Systems Response for NCDs.

“In order to address this issue, health professionals at Aga Khan University have launched a new think tank, AKUPI-NCD – in partnership with experts from a variety of sectors – that will recommend novel, integrated approaches to address the threat of NCDs: the leading cause of death in the country”, said Prof. Zainab Samad, Chair of the AKUPI-NCD on Tuesday.

“NCDs aren’t a problem for the healthcare sector alone,” explained AKU’s Professor Zainab Samad, chair of the initiative. “These diseases have complex causes and long-lasting consequences and their costs to society extend far beyond lost productivity and stunted economic growth. That’s because the cost of treating advanced cases of NCDs drive many families into poverty and makes them dependent on the government or other actors in society.”

The demographics of today’s Pakistan mean that NCDs are a particularly pressing problem. Speakers noted that the majority of Pakistan’s population is under the age of 30 and warned that the coming decades could see a rising burden of these illnesses in an aging population.

“NCDs are a silent killer that continue to go unnoticed,” Professor Wasay noted. “The Airblue crash of 2010 claimed 125 lives and the public attention to the tragedy resulted in immediate regulatory action. NCDs cause 14 times as many deaths every day yet there is an absence of coordinated action from government and civil society on the issue.”

The think tank’s inaugural meeting brought together officials from the insurance, market research, non-profit, banking and public sector to discuss the creation of an integrated plan. The presence of this plan would demonstrate the think tank’s long-term vision and enable stakeholders to coordinate their efforts, speakers noted.

AKU’s Professor Wasay, AKUPI-NCD co-chair, called on stakeholders to consider partnering on initiatives in three areas: education and training, policy advocacy and awareness, and research. “NCDs are preventable,” Professor Wasay said. “Efforts to forestall their onset must begin at home at an early age.”

As a starting point, he noted that advocacy measures should revolve around lifestyle modification campaigns in which media organisations and schools can help disseminate information about the risks posed by tobacco use, a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits.

Experts noted that education and training initiatives can make an immediate impact in the area hypertension as the condition often goes undiagnosed until it leads to life-threatening complications such as stroke.

Commenting on research initiatives, Professor Wasay added that market research firms, insurance companies and public sector institutions all have information that can be analysed to determine the most effective course of action for each type of NCD. Besides pooling together data, experts noted that the establishment of a central data point would advance the study of the public health impact of NCDs.

There were a number of other experts at the event from the finance, insurance, public health and data science industries as well as representatives from the National Institute of Health and Ministry of National Health Services and Regulation.