Chronic Illnesses Cost at Least $6 Trillion Annually

One missing piece in the policy debates around non communicable diseases (NCDs) is an accurate account of their economic impact.  In order for policy makers to begin to grapple with the epidemic sweeping the globe, they need to have a fairly good idea what illnesses like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic lung disease and cancer are having on economies from Bujumbura to Beijing. 

Thanks to some research sponsored by the World Economic Forum, and timed to be released just prior to the UN High Level Meeting on NCDs on September 19-20, 2011, we are now beginning to get an idea.  Harvard School of Public Health Economist Dr. David Bloom and a multidisciplinary team have been using three different methods to put some dollars around the World Health Organization's (WHO) recent estimate of the diseases.  And the result is mind-boggling.  Bloom, who notes that the preliminary estimates he announced at the Global Health Council (GHC) annual meeting on June 14, are subject to revision, says that based upon the "value of a statistical life" model, NCDs are costing between $6 trillion and $19 trillion in 2010.  And, based upon the "WHO EPIC" model, Bloom says that the total cost of NCDs to the global economy from 2005 through 2030 is something on the order of $31 trillion.

Bloom's statistics are startling, even to those accustomed to seeing large numbers in the international development field.  But real perspective came from WHO's Dr. Dan Chisholm, who pointed out that for the globe's roughly 7 billion people,  "based upon the $31 trillion total cost, if the world spent an average of $4,000 per person on prevention, we would actually be ahead of the game."  Chisholm spoke about the cost of simple interventions in NCD prevention -- roughly a dozen "best buys" that include eliminating smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, increasing physical activity, and lowering intake of transfats, salt and sugar -- which together would probably cost less than $10 per person per year.  At that level, says Chisholm, it is impossible to argue that this investment does not make good economic as well as health sense.

Bloom's finished research should be available in about three months, just in time to be considered by the delegates to the UN High Level Session. He says he thinks it may finally sink in with Ministers of Finance and economists that the NCD issue is not unrelated to national budgets.  "Global health leaders and ministers of health have known this for some time," he says, "and now it's time for eveyone else to take account."

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