The NCD Epidemic in Africa: Keeping the fire burning (Part I)
By Catherine Kyobutungi, Research Scientist & Head of Health Systems and Challenges Theme
I have spent five of the last ten days in meetings or traveling to meetings – not necessarily a bad thing, given that the two of these meetings were discussing the impending non-communicable disease (NCD) epidemic in Africa and other developing regions of the world. The main NCD are heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic respiratory disease, and some study findings suggest that NCDs could be already causing up to 36 million deaths per year globally, 80% of which are in low and middle income countries. In other words, the epidemic may have already arrived.
More Developing Country Voices on NCD
My marathon of meetings kicked off with the NCD Lancet series authors meeting hosted by the UK National Heart Forum in London.
The NCD Lancet series (or the Chronic Diseases and Development Lancet Series) is in its fourth round. The three previous series have been instrumental in giving academics and researchers a voice to highlight the magnitude of NCD in different regions of the world, the current and future economic impact and pinpointing priority areas for action. The series is produced by a group of eminent thought leaders in NCD research from all over the world under the banner of The Lancet NCD Action Group.
The fourth series will be slightly different – it will have more voices from the developing world – and that’s how yours truly came to be in London. The contents of the series are still a work in progress but the significance of the meeting should not be lost on us. After the euphoria that followed the UN Political Declaration on NCD in September 2011, much of the world is still grappling with what to do next. All actors must play their part to keep the momentum going and the academics are playing theirs through this high profile publication. A critical issue addressed during the meeting is how to get the contents of one of the top scientific publications in the world—the Lancet-- to a policy maker’s desk in Zambia or Kenya for that matter. Previous series have been launched with much publicity from the Global media in London – which is why for the first time the Lancet is considering launching the NCD series in the developing world. Could it be Kenya’s time to share the spotlight and help draw the attention of African policymakers who will ultimately have to act on NCD?
At KEMRI: Enough Talk More Action
After London, I returned home to Nairobi, to attend the NCD consultative forum hosted by KEMRI. KEMRI (Kenya Medical Research Institute) convened the meeting of leading academics and researchers in Kenya to brainstorm about NCD research priorities in Kenya. Great idea, the only problem was that this was the third meeting I was attending to brain storm about NCD research priorities in Kenya!
Many presenters highlighted the dire need for empirical data on what the NCD burden really is in Kenya. Most of the interesting (and scary) statistics out there that give a national or regional picture are extrapolations from some sophisticated models most of us in the room would not comprehend. For example: Cardiovascular diseases cause up to 1.32 million deaths in sub-Saharan Africa annually, 100,000 more than HIV/AIDS; and 80% of NCD deaths occur in low and middle income countries and the majority occurs before the age of 60 years. But there are also numerous other sub-national studies that have been done with similarly scary statistics. The big question is: do we have enough information to say with certainty what the magnitude of NCD burden is in Kenya? No – but we have enough to act, or at least to start acting.
But where is the money to fund all the interesting research we need to do? According to Professor Kwokaro, the Director of the Consortium for National Health Research, the problem is not lack of funding; rather it is a question of missed opportunities. After five years running a research funding initiative in Kenya, he surely knows what he is talking about. How do you explain the fact that in a recent call for Kenyan research applications, out of the 54 submitted (majority apparently from Kenyans in the Diaspora) there was not a single one tackling NCD research?
Therefore the significance of Professor Kokwaro’s statement for African researchers is clear, we need less talk about the research we need on NCD and more actual NCD research being undertaken.
*Stay tuned for Part II of this blog for my conclusions and recommendations from the recent NCD meetings.