The World Health Organisation says taking action now to combat chronic disease could save the lives of 36 million people over the next 10 years. Currently some 17 million people die every year because of the impact of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke.

However, it warns that these are not just diseases of the wealthier nations but in fact that 80% of all chronic disease deaths occur in low and middle-income countries, including Brazil, China and India. And the economic wave of this burden is likely to strike even deeper: the estimated accumulated losses to China from 2005 to 2015, for example, are $558 billion, for India $236 billion, and $303 billion for the Russian Federation.

“This is a very serious situation, both for public health and for the societies and economies affected, and the toll is projected to increase,” said Dr Lee Jong-Wook, WHO Director-General. “The cost of inaction is clear and unacceptable. It is vital that countries review and implement the health actions we know will reduce premature death from chronic diseases.”

The WHO is calling for the projected trend of chronic disease death rates to be cut by 2% each year until 2015. This would prevent 36 million people dying of chronic diseases in the next 10 years, nearly half of them before they turn 70, it says.

The most important factors in the development of chronic disease are unhealthy diet, physical inactivity and tobacco use – all of which are increasing as dietary habits worsen, peoples’ jobs become more sedentary and marketing of tobacco products increases in low and middle-income countries. Furthermore, one billion people globally are overweight or obese, and WHO predicts that will rise beyond 1.5 billion by 2015 without immediate action.

Examples of how chronic diseases can be combated include salt reduction in processed foods, improved school meals and taxation of tobacco products, which is not only cost-effective but also raises revenues for governments.

“We cannot afford to say 'we must tackle other diseases first - HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis - then we will deal with chronic diseases. If we wait even 10 years, we will find that the problem is even larger and more expensive to address.” President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria.