Director-General's Office

Opening ceremony of WHO Global Conference on Noncommunicable Diseases

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus remarks at the opening ceremony of WHO Global Conference on Noncommunicable Diseases

Montevideo, Uruguay
18 October 2017

Your Excellency Tabaré Vázquez, President of Uruguay,

Honourable ministers, honourable WHO Regional Directors, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honour to join you today for this very important meeting.

I would like to thank President Vázquez for his leadership in the fight against noncommunicable diseases. He is a champion in the fight against NCDs.

Before I go any further, I would like to reflect my deep sadness, and shock, for the passing yesterday of my brother, and colleague, Dr Mahmoud Fikri, the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean Region.

The World Health Organization is grieving today, from here in Montevideo, to Geneva and Cairo, and throughout the region where Dr Fikri had strived for decades to improve the health of others.

I extend my, and WHO’s, deepest condolences to Dr Fikri’s family, his loved ones, and colleagues, and offer our love and support to them at this very difficult time.

Please allow me to lead a minute’s silence for our friend and brother, Dr Fikri.

Dear friends,

Noncommunicable diseases affect us all.

We all know someone whose life was cut short by heart disease and cancer.

We all have parents, relatives or friends who live with diabetes.

We all have someone we love whose memory was robbed by Alzheimer’s disease.

Noncommunicable diseases account for 7 of the top 10 causes of death globally, and are responsible for 70% of all deaths worldwide.

Tragically, every year, NCDs kill 15 million people aged between 30 and 70.

The vast majority of these premature deaths do not occur in rich nations, but among the poorest people in the poorest countries.

Each death deprives a family of a loved one. But it also deprives a nation of a worker.

The tragedy of NCDs is that many are caused by forces beyond our control – exposure to second hand smoke, cheap foods high in sugar, salt and trans fats, built up areas that don’t cater for physical activity.

In the name of free trade, we allow multinational corporations to market junk food to children.

In the name of economic development, we allow the tobacco industry to poison billions of people.

In the name of entertainment, we allow our children to spend more and more time in front of television and smartphone screens, rather than playing outside.

When will we say enough is enough?

At what point do we take a stand and push back?

To manufacturers of these products, I pose several questions to them, some of whom might be in this room today:

“Would you knowingly feed your own children unhealthy foods and drinks high in salt, sugar and trans fats, in doing so steering them from an early age onto a course of heightened health risk, from diabetes, obesity, cancer and cardiovascular diseases?”

If the answer is “no,” so how can food and soft drink makers market and sell their products to the masses of children around the world, seeing them more as opportunities for profit, and turning a blind eye to the spiralling rates of childhood obesity and early onset diabetes.

Even if they are not your biological children, you must see them as your children – we are all part of the same human race. We should lift up those who need our support, not condemn them to futures of ill-health and limited opportunities.

At this important Conference, I urge us all to reflect very deeply on such realities, and to commit to solutions that promote health, protect people and prevent avoidable death and suffering.

The children who are facing all these challenges are our children, they are our future, and we really need to care for them, and our future.

Such solutions must be grasped and led by the highest level of state and implemented by all arms of government and society.

While some NCDs, like Alzheimer’s disease, pose complex scientific questions for which we don’t yet have answers, the majority of these diseases are commonplace.

Who in this room today does not know someone who has suffered needlessly, or passed away far too soon, from a NCD?

And for most NCDs, we know exactly what the answers are.

Stop tobacco use.

Reduce salt intake.

Consume less sugar.

Treat more people for high blood pressure.

Screen more women for cervical cancer.

Increase service coverage for severe mental health disorders.

Protect more people from artificially produced transfats.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are countries in this prestigious hall today who have demonstrated that action to beat NCDs is feasible.

And the one thing in common we identify for all of them is political commitment.

In Chile, the government is succeeding in providing a healthier food environment, where 90% of people say their decisions to purchase foods are influenced by front of package warning labels on products high in sugars, salts, fats and calories.

In Mexico’s fight against the obesity epidemic, the government succeeded in reducing purchases of sugar sweetened beverages by almost 8% in 2014 and 2015 through increased excise taxes on these drinks.

Peru has increased its budget allocation four times in the last few years for mental health services, and effectively used these resources to improve mental healthcare.

And look at our hosts, Uruguay, which has long been a champion in tobacco control, and made public global health history by defeating the challenge by Philip Morris of its effective, life-saving implementation of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

If we are to win the war against premature deaths caused by NCDs, we must also win the battles in our kitchens, shops, supermarkets, restaurants, schools and lounge rooms.

Governments are in the driving seat to take such bold, decisive actions. Political courage is best demonstrated in promoting the health and well-being of people.

Everybody knows that to stop an outbreak of a deadly virus, you cannot simply treat those who are infected. You must stop infections at their source.

So, to halt the epidemics of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, asthma and mental illness, we cannot simply treat the sick. We must protect the healthy, by addressing the root causes.

Otherwise we are fighting an inferno with a garden hose.

We must make it easier for people to make healthy choices, and harder to make unhealthy choices.

We must give people access to affordable food without transfats, and with little sugar and salt.

We must make it clear to people what is in their food.

We must label alcoholic drinks to indicate the harm they cause.

We must remove all branding from tobacco packages.

The nations of the world have agreed to take action against NCDs, by reducing premature deaths by one-third by 2030, as part of the Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs give us the political mandate.

But progress is too slow. The clock is ticking.

Ultimately, the response to NCDs must be embedded within national health plans that prioritize prevention and are directed at achieving universal health coverage.

Our duty is to ensure that all people have access to the full range of health services, from those that protect and promote health, to those that provide treatment, rehabilitation and palliative care.

Only then can we truly say that we have given our children and our grandchildren the future they deserve.

I wish you all a successful meeting, and look forward to working with you to beat NCDs.

Thank you so much. Muchas gracias.

Global Conference on NCDs