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Stopping Latin America’s Biggest Killers

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The panel at the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.

At last week’s World Affairs Council of Atlanta, CEO and President of GE Healthcare in Latin America Daurio Speranzini Jr. set a new direction for continuing work against non-communicable diseases (NCDs) in the region, which are now the biggest cause of death there.

Once considered ‘diseases of the rich’, NCDs are responsible for around 7 in 10 deaths in the developing world, due to increasing uptake of sedentary lifestyles and unhealthy diets that leave people prone to obesity, cancer, lung disease and cardiovascular disease (also known as the ‘big four’ NCDs). However, sustainable measures are at hand and could be implemented to stagnate, or even reverse, this trend.

NCDs rightly took prominence at the summit, and Speranzini emphasized that the best way to tackle them is to diagnose them earlier. He called for improvements in early diagnosis of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. The key to doing this, he said, was to restructure the way patient data is recorded and used.

Speranzini made it very clear that while infectious diseases are still a serious problem, and the fight against them has come a long way in the last 25 years, the burden of disease has been gradually shifting to NCDs, and healthcare systems have been slow to adjust.

“Currently, there are over 200 million people living with NCDs,” he said. “My concern is that, when comparing the number of infectious disease cases versus the number of NCD cases, I don’t see why governments and physicians are giving much more attention to infectious disease. In terms of numbers of cases, NCDs are much higher.”

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Daurio Speranzini Jr, CEO and President of GE Healthcare in Latin America, addressing the World Affairs Council of Atlanta last week.

Throughout the event, a central point emerged: that better, more efficient data systems need to be in place for patients. When it comes to rebuilding healthcare infrastructure, accurate and comprehensive patient information is the foundation.

Presiding over the council was Charles Shapiro, retired Ambassador to Venezuela and President of the World Affairs Council since 2014. Speaking to the Pulse, he recounted several key takeaway messages that struck him the most.

“Some very interesting things struck me,” he said. “On the one hand, the fact that people are dying from NCDs rather than infectious diseases is something of a success, but if they are dying earlier from NCDs in developing countries than they are in developed countries, there’s a challenge.”

“A key takeaway was that lay-people without specific healthcare expertise, like me, should be much more concerned about NCDs in Latin America and the Caribbean,” he added. “Another is the importance of having not just doctors and clinics, but also having the sorts of systems that report back data to ministries of health, so that people know what’s going on in the country with both communicable and non-communicable diseases. For diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes, the data is often simply not there. Having good data systems is hugely important.”

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Ambassador Charles Shapiro, President of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, addressing the council last week.

Concerning estimates have come from a report by the Population Reference Bureau: that by the year 2030, the ‘big four’ NCDs will account for around 81 percent of deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean, unless new measures are taken to improve NCD-related healthcare in the region.

Key findings form the report show that while people in the region are living longer thanks to efforts to tackle infectious diseases, they are living less healthy lives. NCDs are actually taking a heavier toll on younger people than in more economically developed countries like the US or the UK, where NCDs typically affect adults over 60.

“Sixty-five percent of adult deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean today are due to NCDs,” added Speranzini. “Based on my career experience, I believe the most important topics for reducing NCDs in the region are patient data and resource allocation.”

More Information

NCDs in Latin America and the Caribbean

World Affairs Council of Atlanta

Daurio Speranzini Jr

Charles Shapiro