Why Should World Leaders Care About NCDs?

By Nalini Saligram, Founder & CEO of Arogya World and Heather L. White, Technical Advisor, Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), PSI – Co-Chairs of the Taskforce on Women and Non-Communicable Diseases

As countries take stock of their capacity to fight NCDs, it is time to remind them to start with women.

As women, we can all be proud of the progress the world has made to advance the health and wellbeing of girls and women around the globe. The central role of women in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) gives us great hope that our generation is indeed serious about leaving the world a better place for the next – by lifting up women, so women can lift the world.

Let us at this moment, in the summer of 2016, nearly a year after world leaders  agreed on the SDGs and on advancing women everywhere, reflect on just one aspect of a woman’s life – her health.  A woman’s life is more than her reproductive years.  Her role and contribution to society goes beyond her child rearing years.  The world must commit to nurturing a woman from her birth, through her fifth birthday, to her adolescent years, through marriage and childbirth and family life, right through the productive years to her old age. Known as a lifecourse approach (Figure 1), this will require a systematic strengthening of health systems the world over.

What are NCDs, and why care about them?

Non-communicable diseases, or chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and chronic lung diseases – are the #1 killer worldwide.  What is less well known is that NCDs are the #1 killer of women, killing more women around the world than maternal mortality and HIV, TB, malaria combined.

  • Heart disease alone kills 8.6 million women each year – that’s more than 15 women every minute.
  • Women are most impacted by cooking fumes, especially in lower income countries. Globally, 3 billion people – about 50% of the world’s population – use solid fuels or unclean cookstoves for cooking, increasing the risk for chronic lung disease, lung cancer, heart disease and child pneumonia.
  • 3 million women die of cancer (breast, lung, colorectal, cervical) each year.

Surely, the #1 cause of women’s mortality – NCDs – should be the #1 women’s health priority and central to our development agenda.


There is more to this story. NCDs are a major underlying reason why pregnant women die. Diabetes and hypertension during pregnancy can lead to many complications during childbirth, a significant cause of maternal mortality. Diabetes in pregnancy can have serious consequences for both mothers and their children. Addressing NCDs is one way of saving mother’s lives (Figure 2)

Saving mothers lives

Fig 2 – NCDs are among the major reasons why pregnant women die.

Many NCDs can be mitigated by adopting healthier behaviors.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 80% of heart disease, 80% of diabetes and 40% of cancers can be prevented by avoiding tobacco, reducing alcohol consumption, eating healthy foods and increasing physical activity. We believe that we women are a powerful solution to the NCD crisis as we make decisions everyday about the food our families eat, and the physical activity they engage in.

NCDs affect women not just as patients but also as caregivers.

Arogya World, a member of the Taskforce on Women & NCDs, conducted a study of 10,000 women in 10 countries on the impact of NCDs on the everyday lives of women and their families. Results show that half the women provided care for someone in their household with an NCD, and 20% of them had to quit their jobs to do so (Figure 3). This issue of unpaid care must be addressed in the era of the SDGs – too many women are not counted in their country’s GDP because of NCDs.

These are some of the many reasons why PSI and our partners from the Taskforce on Women and NCDs care deeply about these issues.  On our Taskforce website, there are many links to reports, briefs, articles, statements and videos that can add a more rich perspective.

So let each one of us, today, commit to steering our own families towards healthy eating, and to demanding NCD prevention and care from world leaders, as they commit to improving the health and lives of women everywhere.


Putting a Human Face on NCDs

Fig 3 – Unpaid care due to NCDs takes a heavy toll on women and their families.