There are few times in life when one gets to watch history being made. Today is one of those times.
I am in New York with a number of colleagues from the American Cancer Society and other committed organizations to observe a UN High Level Meeting which will--at long last--put non-communicable diseases on the international agenda. The impact of the decisions made here over the next two days can indeed change the face of global health forever.
Those may sound like lofty words, but in fact they are very real.
For years--and rightly so--the international health agenda has been focused on more basic, fundamental issues including the impact of infectious diseases and maternal/child health. As time has gone on, these diseases--including malaria, tuberculosis and HIV--have taken huge tolls on mankind, especially in underdeveloped lands.
But the world is changing. We are becoming a more global society. What we do in one place does indeed affect our brothers and sisters throughout the world. And, as we well know from the events of the past several months, what is done elsewhere impacts all of us, including the developed world.
So it should be no surprise that as we increase the rapidity of communication, as information becomes more seamless and global, as we move quickly from place to place that our lifestyles become less and less insular and more available wherever we may live and travel.
Sometimes that's a good thing, as when it increases expectations of our governments to provide access to more effective medical care or creates a social awareness that leads to increased expectations of free political thought. But it also has a downside, as when increasing affluence and awareness take with them some of the habits that have been ingrained particularly in Western culture.
So it is no longer uncommon to see a branded fast food restaurant serving hamburgers or fried chicken in a foreign land. It is no longer uncommon for the evils of tobacco to spread their tawdry influence, from using child labor to pick tobacco to increasing the smoking rates in underdeveloped countries.
With those habits come diseases that are now commonplace in Western societies: cancer, heart disease, and diabetes among others. And we know that it doesn't have to be so. If what we have learned about the impact of chronic diseases and their origins in Western societies are to have value, then shouldn't we take those lessons to the world stage where maybe--just maybe--we can spare others the lessons of our past which are threatening our health and the future of our years?
That's why we are here in New York this week. Yes, there are important political issues on the world agenda. But the health of our people is also an important issue, and clearly the well-being of the world's populace has value that transcends geopolitical considerations.
There are a number of initiatives being announced this week. Among them will be a global commitment to smoke-free workplaces, bringing governments, non-profit organizations and international corporations together to promote smoke-free workplaces.
Imagine what we could do for the health of the world and for the economies of countries if we could reduce smoking. The financial tally of tobacco's ruthless endangerment of the world's public health is enormous, yet there are countries who buy into the argument that tobacco brings in taxes and wages and therefore is something to be promoted, not restricted.
Yet countries that turn the tide against big tobacco see economic benefits from their actions: reduced illness, reductions in the single greatest cause of avoidable death, increased longevity and economic production. All good things, and all things that could be promoted if we had the wisdom to do what we know needs to be done.
Countries are adopting smoke free policies, and seeing enormous benefits. Commitment and sometimes hard-knuckled politics are keys to success. But so are creating environments such as smoke-free workplaces that make people think twice before they light up, and hopefully will make young people think twice before they adopt a habit that is guaranteed--yes, guaranteed--to kill half of them.
So this week, many will gather to debate the issues of the world. And many are gathered today and tomorrow to debate the health of the world. We will come from this meeting with a declaration that the world must now pay attention to the scourges of chronic, non-communicable diseases. And several years from now we will gather again to measure the success of our efforts.
The last time this was done was 10 years ago, and the topic was HIV. HIV is still with us, but to some degree (although clearly not enough of a degree) its scourge has been blunted. Prevention efforts have improved, less expensive versions of medicines have been provided. Lives have been saved. Children have fathers and mothers again.
Hopefully, 10 years from now, we will see the world take notice of what we can do to be as powerful about other aspects of our health. Decreasing smoking where it exists and preventing it from taking a strangle hold where it doesn't already have traction; improving diets and decreasing obesity; offering cancer screening while at the same time decreasing the cultural stigma of cancer; providing vaccines to prevent one of the most common causes of death of women throughout the developing world; screening and providing resources for the treatment of breast cancer where none exist today. What was last week's wishful thinking will be next weeks mandate for the world.
These are the hopes and prayers of those who have worked so hard from all over the world to make this happen here in New York on this beautiful September day.
May everyone take notice that in this moment of success we have come together to make this world a better, healthier place to live and prosper. There could not be a more noble mission.