It is hard to find a life that has not been touched in some way by a non communicable disease (NCD). Whether it's a mother who has breast cancer, a father with diabetes, or a cousin with asthma, virtually all of us have personal knowledge of what it is like to live with -- and sometimes die with -- a chronic illness. That basic fact makes the upcoming UN High Level Meeting on NCDs this September of interest to many people. And yet, one of the most compelling and vulnerable groups affected by NCDs has been left out of the discussion so far: the children.
In April, health ministers met in Moscow to develop a statement about NCDs. Over several days, delegates hammered out the Moscow Declaration on NCDs, a multiple page blueprint for international action. Then, in May, nations regathered at the World Health Assembly in Geneva to again address the NCD issue (among many other things), by adopting a resolution about the subject. Both of these documents will be heavily consulted when the UN considers adopting a summary document about NCDs in September. But neither mentions children.
By this point, most people know that NCDs don't only affect older adults. In 2002, NCDs killed more than 1.2 million children under the age of 20. Millions more live with chronic illnesses, many without access to the care and treatment they deserve. Asthma, diabetes, rheumatic heart disease, leukemia, and Burkitt's Lymphoma are just a few examples of illnesses that affect large numbers of children, and kill far too many.
A global umbrella of nonprofit organizations devoted to NCDs, the NCD Alliance, has put together a publication about NCDs and children that tells the story in detail. It provides a clear rationale for including children in the outcome document the United Nations will approve. Among the report's recommendations are five key ones: make improvements related to NCDs and children in leadership, prevention, diagnostics/treatment, international cooperation and monitoring/research.
So why aren't children getting the attention they deserve in this process? Children have a hard time advocating for themselves. They are largely voiceless in international policy debates, and generally must rely upon the testimony of others to support their cause. Because many people assume that chronic illness affects only adults, children can be forgotten, and the stigma they suffer can go unnoticed, even among others who care about health. Many children with chronic illnesses are too young even to complain parents or guardians, and suffer in silence until their illnesses eventually overcome them. Finally, the global health community has focused with great success on wiping out infectious childhood illnesses, but little attention has been paid to childhood NCDs.
But we know better, or should. A first necessary step is measuring the incidence of NCDs in children accurately. Without statistics on NCDs in children in every country, it is difficult to plan large-scale programs. Many childhood NCDs are preventable with simple interventions like adequate nutrition and clean-burning indoor cook stoves. Others can be managed effectively with low-cost medications. For those who are interested in preventing NCDs in children, measuring how many children are affected, and caring for those who are trying to live with a chronic illness, please write to the United Nations before June 10 (the deadline) at this link, and tell Secretary Ban Ki-Moon to address their needs along side the needs of adults and others living with NCDs.
Only in a world that cares about children can we all have a brighter future.