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OPINION

How the U.N. Can Undo Damage From Chronic Disease

More than three of every five people who die today will do so because of a chronic, non-communicable disease ("NCD") such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer or lung disease. NCDs account for 75 percent of health care spending globally and cause hundreds of billions of dollars in productivity losses in developing countries alone. The human and economic costs are staggering.

Fortunately, the world is taking action. The United Nations just finished its first-ever High-Level Meeting on NCDs, potentially moving the world's most deadly and debilitating diseases to the top of the global agenda -- exactly where they belong.

Until recently, governments, donors and multilateral agencies like the World Health Organization have focused their attention on acute, infectious illnesses rather than NCDs.

Preventing the explosion of NCDs will not be easy. And positive outcomes from the U.N. meeting are unlikely without constructive engagement by the private sector.

In the past, some governments and multilateral agencies have tended to endorse regulation and mandates as the primary solution to global health challenges.

But government intervention isn't enough. The scope of this global health challenge calls for solutions far beyond the scope of any single institution.

Earlier this year, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on the world's businesses to help address NCDs. The private sector stands ready.

Governments, multilateral agencies, academia, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector must join forces and pursue a wide range of innovative strategies, including multi-stakeholder partnerships, incentives, education and awareness campaigns to improve the way the world prevents, diagnoses and treats NCDs.

The private sector must make good on its social contract to help. We all share humanitarian concerns about improving public health. Yet businesses also have a vested interest in maintaining healthy and productive workforces. Nearly 50 percent of deaths occur among people in their most productive years.

Businesses also benefit from healthy consumers and economies -- which allow them to fulfill their responsibility to be profitable and competitive.

Delegates to the U.N. meeting must recognize the critical role businesses play in bringing valuable innovations to market, delivering tangible solutions, closing resource gaps and addressing the causes of poor health and disease.

While some NCDs arise from genetic and environmental factors, others result from unhealthy behaviors and lifestyle choices. As a result, they can often be combated with health promotion initiatives. Reducing tobacco, salt, sugar and alcohol consumption and improving diet and physical activity are practical, cost-effective approaches that can make a real difference.

Employers have tremendous power to lead on this front. Many companies have implemented health education and screening programs, no-smoking policies, workplace exercise campaigns, and community outreach initiatives.

Already, more than 40 organizations have joined the Workplace Wellness Alliance. Established by the World Economic Forum, this pioneering program supports the fight against NCDs by promoting best-in-class employee wellness programs through information-sharing and the use of standardized metrics.

Governments, multilateral agencies and donors must also prioritize their efforts, as roughly 80 percent of NCD-related deaths occur in low- or middle-income countries.

In developing countries, overcoming NCDs requires a different approach -- one that starts with establishing basic health systems and primary care infrastructures. Fortunately, we don't need to reinvent the wheel. The global campaign against AIDS, TB, and malaria has already put in place some of the health care infrastructure needed to tackle NCDs.

Partnerships, often led by NGOs and the private sector, have been particularly effective in this area. For example, the Boston-based non-profit Partners in Health, working in collaboration with the Rwandan Ministry of Health, has done a tremendous job controlling infectious diseases in Rwanda. Rwandans now have access to more than 400 health centers, 42 district hospitals, and 45,000 community health workers - and are living longer.

Now, Partners in Health is working with the Rwandan government to create a model for integrating NCD management into this existing primary care infrastructure, helping train nurses and community healthcare workers around a cluster of chronic diseases.

Efforts like this cannot succeed without a committed and diverse group of partners, including many from the private sector. Indeed, the most successful efforts are often powered by governments, NGOs and businesses working together to develop sustainable, locally-driven solutions.

About 36 million people die every year from NCDs. This number is set to increase to 52 million by 2030. That's a major challenge for the global community. Overcoming it will require an enlightened, inclusive approach that embraces and encourages partnerships among public and private organizations. The United Nations' meeting represents the opening volley in that pursuit.

Jean-Luc Butel is International Group President of Medtronic and a board member of the Medtronic Foundation, which focuses on philanthropic efforts that address the global burden of noncommunicable diseases.  Medtronic is a member of the Workplace Wellness Alliance.