The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us all about the basics of public health and infectious diseases. Messaging on handwashing, mask-wearing and social distancing helped to stop the spread of the virus by minimising its chance of passing from one person to the next. However, a serious and deadly gap remains in our public awareness around stopping the spread of non-infectious diseases, known more commonly as noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
NCDs are the leading cause of death and disability in the world, accounting for 71 per cent of deaths worldwide, including 15 million premature deaths. They tend to be long-term illnesses and are caused by genetic, physiological, or behavioural factors among others. They are not transmitted from one person to another, which can make them harder and more expensive to identify, prevent and treat. As leaders and policymakers in the Middle East and Africa prepare health systems for the post-pandemic world, now is the opportune time to rethink how healthcare strategies approach NCDs.
Firstly, driving better messaging around how to avoid and identify NCDs could go a long way, especially if those messages are delivered across a variety of channels and aimed at all demographics, rather than focussing on older people where the interventions are still important but less impactful. Social media has the potential to play an important role in this, allowing for up-to-date, targeted messages at the national, regional, and even global levels. For example, Sehtak Hayatak is a digital campaign that targets Facebook users across the Middle East and North Africa with preventative messages around NCDs.
Secondly, shifting health systems to better handle NCDs at the primary health care level allows more patients to access care, enables illnesses to be identified at earlier stages and can help patients to avoid catastrophic health care costs that can be associated with chronic disease. This is especially relevant for many African countries, where NCDs are treated at tertiary health facilities, which are mostly in large cities and out-of-reach to most rural and lower-income patients, who can often only easily access district hospitals and local health centres.
The benefits of this approach have been demonstrated by the Healthy Heart Africa programme, which is tackling the growing burden of cardiovascular disease, specifically hypertension, in Africa. Nigeria recently became the ninth country in the continent to join the initiative, which has already reached millions of at-risk people.
Finally, measures to tackle NCDs are more powerful when they bring the public, private and non-profit sectors together and put health workers front and centre of their design. Many governments across the Middle East and Africa were struggling to invest adequate resources in their health systems even before the pandemic, and the last two and half years have made the situation more precarious. Working across sectors can help to relieve some of that pressure and introduce innovative, more cost-effective methods of health care delivery that benefit patients and government budgets. The NCD Alliance estimates that for every US$1 spent tackling NCDs in low- and middle-income countries there is a projected return of US$19 – equating to a global benefit of US$2.7 trillion by 2030.
In Egypt, AstraZeneca has partnered with 7keema, a digital health care service provider specialized in home nursing services and patient counselling with fully trained and certified nursing staff.
This partnership aims to enhance access to healthcare through enabling home nursing services for the first time to support oncology patients in Egypt. Moreover, decreasing the disease burden and mitigating healthcare crisis by the provision of care at home for breast cancer patients through tele-nursing services.
Such programmes are making a demonstrable impact, but we need stakeholders across the whole healthcare ecosystem to drive collective action at pace in order to address the NCD burden in the Middle East, Africa and beyond. Only then can we create sustainable health systems and ensure equitable access that will benefit the health of people, society, and our planet — now and for generations to come.
I urge leaders in every country and every sector to join me in reaffirming our commitment to putting these diseases at the centre of post-pandemic healthcare.
* The author is the AVP MEA Area, AstraZeneca