By Dr. Abbas Gullet, Secretary General – Kenya Red Cross Society

The burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is fast increasing, dealing a blow to low- and middle-income countries due to devastating economic consequences to families and communities. Worldwide, they have become the leading cause of death overtaking communicable diseases. We recognise the fact that NCDs are becoming an epidemic in our population with a health care system that is still struggling to cope with the infectious diseases and other conditions, therefore, making it a challenge to holistically focus on NCDs.

Of loss is the fact that the NCD burden affects people in their most productive years (30–70 years). It is a catastrophe because the majority of households are trapped in poverty as family members increase out-of-pocket expenditure to offset medical bills for these lifelong illnesses. Additionally, access to quality affordable health care is limited and the time taken off work to seek treatment and care results in decreased productivity and a loss to household income.

In Kenya, it is estimated that at least 30% of the Kenyan adult population has one NCD while 60% of all in-hospital mortalities are due to NCDs. The cost implication is prohibitive for a large number of people due to lifelong debilitating illnesses.

However, all is not lost as early detection and compliance with preventive and treatment measures can save family finances and reduce health care expenditures.

As a player within the humanitarian landscape, I can confirm the severity of NCDs in reducing household resilience and therefore community resilience in emergencies and disasters because they drain household income. This makes health response in emergencies more complex as a result of a lack of guidelines, tools and response kits in the management of NCDs in populations affected by disasters.

To effectively address this issue, one cannot overemphasize the need for a multi-sectoral approach and the need to pull together as witnessed recently during the signing of a new partnership with the Defeat-NCD Partnership, which adds to the efforts of the Kenya Red Cross Society under my leadership that addresses the non-communicable diseases and conditions in our beloved country. Such stakeholder participation, partnerships and inter-sectoral coordination is an important aspect of this journey.

It is vital that we deliberately promote healthy lifestyles by increasing awareness of risk factors and the importance of adopting a healthy living. Communities should be aware of and embrace screening for purposes of early detection. On our part as implementers, there is an urgent need to increase access to NCD screening, referral services, treatment, as well as access to care and support for people living with NCDs and other chronic illnesses.

At the moment, we lack proper emergency response guidelines required for first response for patients with NCDs leading to life threatening effects on their health, especially children and the elderly who are the most vulnerable. The gap subsequently increases the risk of NCD related complications such as heart attacks, diabetic emergencies, stroke, increasing 2 to 3 fold during emergencies among people living with diabetes or hypertension. The double burden of diseases – both communicable and non-communicable complicates further the prioritisation of NCDs in emergency response.

A comprehensive and coordinated approach will ensure genuine discussions on and fight against NCD related issues. It calls for collaboration between the Ministry of Health, county governments and non-state stakeholders. At the centre of it should be a community strategy that pushes for the creation of key services, community awareness on prevention and control, community referrals and linkages, as well as follow ups. This should be coupled with the strengthening of health systems that involve capacity building and infrastructural support, also health information and data management strengthening.

Today, the knowledge of NCD is high but unfortunately, prevention practices remain very low. This demands behaviour change in the general population, an action worth prioritising and investing in. On the part of the Kenya Red Cross Society, we will keep supporting the Ministry of Health and collaborate with other partners in this fight. Meaningful contributions have already been made. Among them our support towards the development and dissemination of the national NCD strategic framework 2016-2020, school health programmes, the capacity building of Health Community Workers, the establishment of clinics, equipping health facilities, integrated screening outreach, and support to NCD patient support groups.

On a personal basis, I will continue to play a crucial role as an NCD Champion in the humanitarian sector and also pursue not just national but global partnerships in addressing non-communicable diseases and conditions.