Every diabetes death must count

30 May 2012

‘I believe the best days for health are ahead of us, not behind us’ said WHO DG Margaret Chan at last week’s World Health Assembly. And that flash of optimism was true for diabetes when governments adopted the first ever global target on Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs) just a few days later, committing themselves to cutting NCD deaths by 25% by 2025 (‘25 by 25’). It was a milestone in diabetes advocacy. IDF and the NCD Alliance have been working for this for over a year, and it shows again what ‘people’s power’ can do when allies work for a common cause.

Every diabetes death must be recorded, counted and explained

You should have seen the activity at the World Health Assembly as an army of NCD Alliance volunteers fanned out across the building, ambushing government delegations in coffee queues and corridors to persuade them that we needed an NCD mortality target – and we needed it now. Judith Watt, Director of the NCD Alliance, coordinated this activity from campaign headquarters, a circle of chairs in the Serpentine Café at the Assembly overlooking Lake Geneva. And we were supported in this task by NCD elder statesman, Sir George Alleyne, and others deeply respected in the global health community.

And along with the pressure from civil society, we saw true leadership from a number of Member States to get the mortality target adopted.  Two small island states  - Jamaica and Samoa – ran like Usain Bolt ahead of the field, with the United States, Barbados, Canada, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Norway, Russian Federation, Thailand and Switzerland close behind. After just a couple of days of negotiation all governments had signed up to it and all had committed to collecting data on diabetes and NCD deaths, and reporting regularly on progress to the UN.  Some targets sit forgotten on UN shelves and others, like the MDGs, focus action and resources. It is our job to ensure this target drives positive change. We must act as watchdogs to make sure our governments report on time, and monitor the progress they report. We will offer solutions and expertise to encourage national efforts on diabetes prevention, early diagnosis, screening and care. And IDF will continue to use our people power to galvanise the – still missing - essential national and global resources for diabetes. 

There is a lot to play for. The Resolution passed last Saturday commits governments to reaching consensus, before the end of October, on additional targets for the four main NCD risk factors - tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, unhealthy diet and physical inactivity - and to consider further targets relating to obesity, fat intake, alcohol, cholesterol and health system responses, such as availability of essential medicines for NCDs. IDF and the NCD Alliance will continue to advocate loudly for a comprehensive set of targets that address both prevention and treatment, and particularly to ensure that the target on essential medicines is not forgotten. We must protect future generations from NCDs and we must also treat the people suffering now – because it is their right and because we can.

We must protect future generations from NCDs and we must also treat the people suffering now – because it is their right and because we can

It was deja vu for me ten days ago when the NCD Alliance held a meeting in same the room in Geneva where the Alliance had been launched three years before in 2009. That was when we first called jointly for a UN Summit on NCDs.  Three years ago, diabetes and the other NCDs were completely marginalized on the global health scene. I told IDF President Martin Silink to prepare to eat a lot of sandwiches – I hoped he was hungry because I was sure no-one would turn up to the NCD Alliance event and reception. But Martin said IDF was an audacious organization and we must always travel optimistically.

This morning in Beijing I attended the launch of the first five year NCD Plan for China. Remarkably, that Plan was drafted jointly by 15 government ministries, in response to a commitment made at last year’s UN Summit. The Summit brought home the reality that prevention and control of diabetes and the other NCDs is the business of the whole of government. The Chinese government have done the difficult job of convening 15 ministries to design an NCD Plan which they will be accountable for delivering. I hope other countries will follow suit.

Last September when the UN Summit ended without agreeing targets I felt let down. Governments had agreed no vision, nothing to aim for. But when the decision on targets was deferred to 2012, we continued to fight for what was important - accountability for the millions of people with diabetes and NCDs dying before their time.  Every diabetes death must be recorded and whenever one person with diabetes (child or adult) dies a death that could have been prevented, that death must be counted and we must demand an explanation.