When many people think of illnesses in poor countries, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria are what usually spring to mind. But, cancer, diabetes and heart and lung diseases hurt women, men and children in poor countries in exactly the same way as they do in rich ones.
The difference is that people in the developing world do not have the same access to prevention, diagnosis, treatment – or an eventual cure – as their sisters and brothers in the developed world.
Imagine being told someone in your family has cancer and knowing there is little chance of surgery or chemotherapy. Imagine if you are diagnosed as diabetic but there is no insulin to keep you alive. This is the case for millions of people who live where access to specialists, medicines and hospitals is limited.
If you are poor you are at an increased risk of developing a disease like cancer or diabetes – known as non-communicable diseases because people cannot catch them from one another. Poverty itself is one of the four major risk factors – the others are tobacco use, alcohol abuse and an unhealthy diet with little exercise.
Poor people develop non-communicable diseases at an earlier age. They become harder to treat and the patients themselves become even poorer. The medicine or the nutritious food, which can help rebuild their health, is out of their reach. The vicious cycle of poverty has a huge influence over whether sick people will simply live – or die.
Caritas and its fellow Catholic and partner organisations are stepping up their fight against non-communicable diseases with practical programmes on the ground. As prevention is better than cure, Caritas is funding screening for high blood pressure in South Africa, community-based health workers have been trained to raise awareness about lifestyle changes in the Philippines, while in Lebanon prevention work is done at an early age in schools. In Papua New Guinea, programmes to reach men in rural areas are underway.
But Caritas is also raising its worldwide voice to advocate for governments to change their health policies and to pay more attention to these chronic illnesses. Investing in the battle against non-communicable diseases is investing in the future health of our world. Caritas wants attention paid to growing problems such as obesity, which are piling up problems for decades to come in both rich and poor countries.