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Non-communicable diseases, law and human rights

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Non-communicable diseases are a major challenge for health and development, especially in low- and middle-income countries

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease, cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease, are the single greatest cause of preventable illness, disability and mortality worldwide. Nearly three-quarters of deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries. NCDs have massive social and economic consequences for countries and drive individuals and households into poverty, hampering progress across the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Vulnerable populations – those living in poverty, indigenous populations, migrant populations and people with mental and psychosocial disabilities are vulnerable to NCDs.

Risk behaviours, such as tobacco use, harmful use of alcohol, physical inactivity and unhealthy diet, place all people - children, adults and the elderly - at risk of NCDs. However, people living in vulnerable situations – such as indigenous peoples, migrant populations and people with mental and psychosocial disabilities – may face particular human rights and gender-related barriers to access health information and services to prevent and control NCDs.

Example: NCDs and poverty

The behavioural risk factors for NCDs are high among poor people and poor nations. Research shows that those with least access to health information and education are at higher risk of NCDs, and also have the worst outcomes from NCDs – they get sicker and die sooner than people of higher socio-economic positions.

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They are at greater risk of being exposed to harmful products (like tobacco or unhealthy diets) and have limited access to affordable preventative health services and treatment. Discrimination and stigmatization of poor people may create further barriers to access to appropriate health care.

Once affected, health care costs for NCDs and the loss of breadwinners have a severe impact on household resources, forcing people further into poverty.

WHO Fact Sheet: Non-communicable diseases