Around 80 million Pakistanis suffer from one or more Non-Communicable Diseases or NCDs, a set of chronic illnesses including cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, cancer, diabetes, conditions caused due to tobacco consumption, and mental problems resulting from poor lifestyle choices and environmental risks.

Despite being one of the major cause of death in the country and also one of the primary causes of poor quality of life, Pakistan still struggles and has a fragmented approach with little or no coordination among major stakeholders, experts believe. Pakistan still lags in meeting the set targets of WHO for the National Systems Response for NCDs.

“In order to address this issue, health professionals at Aga Khan University have launched a new think tank, AKUPI-NCD – in partnership with experts from a variety of sectors – that will recommend novel, integrated approaches to address the threat of NCDs: the leading cause of death in the country”, said Prof Zainab Samad, Chair of the AKUPI-NCD on Tuesday.

“NCDs aren’t a problem for the healthcare sector alone,” explained AKU’s Professor Zainab Samad, chair of the initiative. “These diseases have complex causes and long-lasting consequences and their costs to society extend far beyond lost productivity and stunted economic growth. That’s because the cost of treating advanced cases of NCDs drive many families into poverty and makes them dependent on the government or other actors in society.”

The demographics of today’s Pakistan highlight that NCDs are a particularly pressing concern. Speakers stated that Pakistan’s population is under the age of 30 and in the coming decades the older population will be susceptible to these illnesses.

“NCDs are a silent killer that continue to go unnoticed,” Professor Wasay noted. “The Airblue crash of 2010 claimed 125 lives and the public attention to the tragedy resulted in immediate regulatory action. NCDs cause 14 times as many deaths every day yet there is an absence of coordinated action from government and civil society on the issue.”

The think tank’s inaugural meeting invited officials from all walks of life including insurance, market research, non-profit, banking and public sector to discuss the drafting of an integrated plan. This plan would assist the think tank’s long-term vision and will allow relevant stakeholders to coordinate and work together.

AKUPI-NCD Co-chair Professor Wasay called on stakeholders to consider joining hands-on initiatives in three key areas: education and training, policy advocacy and awareness, and research. “NCDs are preventable,” Professor Wasay added. “Efforts to forestall their onset must begin at home at an early age.”

He said advocacy measures should inculcate campaigns to change lifestyles in which schools and media can play a vital role by disseminating information related to the risks posed by a sedentary lifestyle, poor eating choices and tobacco consumption.  Experts noted that education and training initiatives can also have an immediate effect on areas including hypertension, as the condition often goes unnoticed until it causes life-threatening complications like stroke.

Commenting on research initiatives, Professor Wasay added that market research firms, insurance companies and public sector institutions all have information which can be accessed to determine the most effective course of action for each type of NCD. Besides pooling together data, experts noted that the formation of a central data point would help in advancing the public health impact of NCDs.

Several experts from the fields of finance, insurance, public health and data science industries were also present at the event, along with representatives from the National Institute of Health and Ministry of National Health Services and Regulation.

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