globalA global health report released last week by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that one out of every three adults worldwide has high blood pressure – a condition that causes strokes and heart disease. One in ten adults has diabetes.

 “This report is further evidence of the dramatic increase in the conditions that trigger heart disease and other chronic illnesses, particularly in low- and middle-income countries,” says Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO. “In some African countries, as much as half the adult population has high blood pressure.”

This is the first time, the WHO’s annual report has included information from 194 countries on the percentage of men and women with raised blood pressure and blood glucose levels.

In high-income countries, widespread diagnosis and treatment with low-cost medication have significantly reduced mean blood pressure across populations – and this has contributed to a reduction in deaths from heart disease. In Africa, however, more than 40% (and up to 50%) of adults in many countries are estimated to have high blood pressure. Most of these people remain undiagnosed, although many of these cases could be treated with low-cost medications, which would significantly reduce the risk of death and disability from heart disease and stroke.

Another area of concern, high glucose levels, varies from country to country. In some Pacific Island countries, as much as one-third of the population has high levels. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to cardiovascular disease, blindness and kidney failure.

Obesity another major issue

“In every region of the world, obesity doubled between 1980 and 2008,” says Dr Ties Boerma, Director of the Department of Health Statistics and Information Systems at WHO. “Today, half a billion people (12% of the world’s population) are considered obese.”

The highest obesity levels are in the WHO Region of the Americas (26% of adults) and the lowest in the WHO South-East Asia Region (3% obese). In all parts of the world, women are more likely to be obese than men, and thus at greater risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Noncommunicable diseases currently cause almost two thirds of all deaths worldwide. Global concern about the rise in numbers of deaths from heart and lung disease, diabetes and cancer prompted the United Nations to hold a high-level meeting on noncommunicable diseases in New York in September 2011.

The World Health Assembly, to be held in Geneva from 21 to 26 May 2012, will review progress made since that meeting and agree on next steps. Work is currently under way to develop a global monitoring framework and a set of voluntary targets for prevention and control of these diseases.