Lifestyle diseases swamp Asia’s healthcare systems

Copyright: Panos/Bjoern Steinz

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  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is now the leading cause of death globally
  • Half of all CVD cases occur in the Asia Pacific region with most linked to lifestyle
  • Smoking, hypertension and obesity cases are swamping healthcare systems

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[NEW YORK] Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is reaching epidemic levels in many Asian countries that until now had to contend mainly with parasitic, vector-borne and neglected tropical diseases, says a study released this month by the Economist Intelligence Unit.
The study estimates that US$53 billion goes to treating CVD linked to modifiable risk factors—such as smoking, hypertension, obesity and high cholesterol levels—that are now threatening the sustainability of healthcare systems in eight Asia Pacific economies studied – Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.
According to the study, sponsored by the global biopharmaceutical company Amgen, the largest challenge from these ‘silent’ risk factors is that individuals often have little knowledge of their effect until symptoms become pronounced and illnesses advanced.

“Governments need to do much more to prevent and control CVD, starting with national action plans as a key part of a comprehensive response to tackle non-communicable [diseases].”

Rohan Greenland, Asia Pacific Heart Network 

Since the risk of CVD is elevated among older populations, countries with aging demographics face greater challenges. This is a major issue in Asia which is rapidly aging; in 2016, approximately 12.4 per cent of Asia’s population was 60 years of age or older.
The report says to shift away from treating illnesses and instead focus on predicting and preventing conditions before they become life-threatening, governments have several options. They could initiate multi-stakeholder collaborations, change behaviour and transform healthcare systems to create a new “predict and prevent paradigm” to “address CVD in the face of demographic headwinds”.
Rohan Greenland, president of the Asia Pacific Heart Network (APHN) who participated in the report, remarked: “Governments need to do much more to prevent and control CVD, starting with national action plans as a key part of a comprehensive response to tackle non-communicable [diseases]. Modifiable risk factors including smoking, physical inactivity and overweight/obesity need to be aggressively addressed.”

Kavita Venkataraman, a specialist in cardio-metabolic diseases at the National University of Singapore, believes awareness already exists on the seriousness of these diseases.
“The long timeline over which such diseases develop, however, makes it difficult for people to connect today’s behaviour to a heart attack 20 years later,” Venkataraman says. “Habit, convenience and cost are key factors in why people find it difficult to change behaviours related to tobacco use, diet, and physical activity, even when they understand the risks.”
“We need to make it easier for people to do the ‘right things’ consistently. This requires sustained efforts that involve not just the ministries of health but other ministries, like planning, urban and rural development, transport, trade and industries, as well as community partners,” says Venkataraman.  
Moreover, she says, cost and access are important factors that influence early identification and treatment of those at risk: “Healthcare services and subsidies in Asia still focus…on acute hospital management of catastrophic illnesses.” 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.