What About Children: Don't They Get Chronic Illnesses, Too?

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.


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Comment by Jeff Meer on June 13, 2011 at 6:55am
For those attending this week's meetings of the Global Health Council in Washington, DC, there is a session devoted to this topic.  "Don't forget our children! Global approaches to NCDs and Children" at 10:45 am on Tuesday June 14.  It will feature presentations by
  • Felicia Knaul, Harvard Global Equity Initiative; Global inequities, children & NCDs – what can we learn from childhood cancer?
  • Sara Sutlac, Partners in Health; Experiences at the coalface ‐ NCDs and children in Rwanda
  • Kelly Light, National Newborn Screening and Genetics Resource Center; The role of NBS in securing a healthier future for children everywhere
  • Kate Armstrong, Caring & Living As Neighbours (CLAN); A community development approach to tertiary prevention of chronic health conditions in childhood

The session will be moderated by Dr. Gene Bukhman, Assistant Professor of Medicine and an Assistant Professor of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr Bukhman is also cardiology director for Partners In Health.


Comment by Dr Kate Armstrong on June 11, 2011 at 7:45am

Thanks Jeff! We were inspired by Mayor Wharton's leadership in Memphis - he is so passionate about child health and NCD prevention by creating healthy environments. Mayor Wharton spoke to participants at the St Jude Global Summit (www.cure4kids.org/ums/home/public_area/conf/) - it was just incredible to listen to a leader with such a vision for our future - for the children. http://www.cityofmemphis.org/framework.aspx?page=22


Little wonder Mayor Wharton has caught the ear of President Obama!  http://www.commercialappeal.com/photos/2011/may/16/224597.... Lot of synergy with the great work of the First Lady with Let's Move - http://www.letsmove.gov ... It's encouraging to see leaders who care about child health and see a role for themselves in promoting healthy communities. 


Thank-you St Jude for a great conference!

Comment by Amy Eussen on June 9, 2011 at 2:29pm
Great blog thanks Jeff! It is so important to advocate for kids and we need to make sure they are not left off the agenda at the UN Summit like they were in Moscow and at the WHA. The longer policy document of the NCD Alliance on children and NCDs sure makes the case for the inclusion of children in all policies. It's a great advocacy and lobbying tool for people to use (http://www.ncdalliance.org/sites/default/files/resource_files/NCD%2...). Also it is a fabulous policy document for people to upload to the WHO Civil Society input page (http://www.who.int/nmh/events/2011/online_form/en/index.html). Great to see you drawing attention to kids health rights!

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