Greater Collaboration Between Health and Trade Sectors - Part of Pacific's Response to NCDs Crisis

15 Feb 2013

[February 15 - Nadi, Fiji] While discussions were being held in the Pacific this week on the issue of trade and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark has called for swift, firm measures to halt a global surge in diseases such as cancer and diabetes, saying they belong “permanently on the global development agenda.”

“Failure to curb the growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) now will lead to a significant toll on human life and well-being, and great strain on health systems and family and public budgets,” she said, speaking in London, at the launch of a new series on NCDs by UK medical journal The Lancet.

“By placing NCDs permanently on the global development agenda, people’s lives, opportunities, and future prospects will improve—advancing sustainable human development overall,” she said, adding that the global response to HIV/AIDS suggests early intervention can decisively alter the trajectory of an epidemic.

“Just as health shapes development, development shapes health. Poor health impedes lifting human development, while the conditions in which people live and work impact health and well-being,” she said. “Inequalities in health outcomes tend to mirror inequalities and inequities more broadly everywhere,” said Ms Clark.

Meanwhile, at the end of a four day workshop on the linkages between trade, trade agreements and non-communicable diseases (NCDs), held in Nadi, Fiji health and trade as well as civil society organisations’ representatives from Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Palau, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu have started to lay the foundation for more effective inter-sectoral collaboration to address the NCDs crisis that threatens the region.

Having some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the world (in some countries obesity rates are as high as 75% and diabetes rates as high as 47%), the Pacific Islands are facing an unprecedented crisis of epidemic proportion. This phenomenon has been largely attributed to changing lifestyles, smoking, harmful use of alcohol and changing diets which increasingly rely on energy dense and nutrient poor processed foods. NCDs are causing a premature death, disability and undermine development gains as well as impose a huge burden on health systems.

One of the key problems is that healthy foods have become increasingly expensive compared to highly processed and unhealthy food. Delegates in attendance recognized that there was a need to make the healthier choices easier for the public. Some of the measures discussed as possible options include: taxing food with a high sugar, salt or fat content, while reducing taxes on healthier food. There is also an urgent need to improve food standards as well as better implement the World Health Organisation (WHO) Framework Convention for Tobacco Control to which all the 9 countries that attended the workshop are party to.

A strong emphasis was placed on evidence-based policy making. Country delegates highlighted the need to conduct research and collect data to inform policy decisions. The workshop enabled delegates to familiarize themselves with Impact Assessment tools as well as the use of national statistics to gauge the effect of certain trade regimes on health and other social sectors.

Case studies from the Pacific and other parts of the world that highlighted the experience of national governments in using trade policies and inter-sectoral collaboration as a means to achieve better health outcomes as well as guaranteeing access to affordable medicines were reviewed in detail. For example, lessons learned from Fiji’s experience of banning the sale of mutton flap imports, Samoa’s experience of regulating turkey tail imports, Nauru’s experience of taxing sugary products as well as Thailand’s “Health in All Policies” approach were discussed among others.

As an outcome of the meeting, participants outlined preliminary priority action points to inform country strategies to better integrate health concerns into trade and vice versa. For example, Tuvalu, which is in the process of developing a trade policy, committed to include a representative from the Health Department on their trade policy development committee. Similar pledges were made by Nauru, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands whereas in Palau, Tonga and Samoa were such mechanisms exist, it is anticipated that they will be strengthened. The need for food standards and better enforcement mechanisms was also emphasized.

The event, jointly resourced by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Centre and the World Health Organization (WHO) in collaboration with the Pacific Research Centre for the Prevention of Obesity and Non-Communicable Diseases (known as C-POND) also benefited from renowned international experts on trade, law and health.

Fiji’s Minister of Health, Dr. Neil Sharma attended the final day of the workshop and delivered closing remarks.

“I am impressed with the interactions that have taken place at this meeting. I would like to thank the organisers - UNDP, WHO, SPC and C-POND for having made this possible,” said Dr Sharma.

“If governments are committed to national development, they will need to look at the health sector. I am pleased that at this meeting we have identified areas of collaboration, not only nationally, but also regionally. We cannot delay our combined approach to address NCDs.”

The workshop concluded yesterday with an outcome statement that the Minister Dr Sharma has agreed to table at the next Pacific Health Ministers meeting in July.

For further information, contact:

Shobhna Decloitre, UNDP Communications Specialist on shobhna.decloitre@undp.org or (679) 3300399