Joint UN Mission supports Bhutan efforts to prevent and control noncommunicable diseases
Reducing harmful alcohol use, and improving diet and nutrition in Bhutan were among key focus areas of the first joint mission to the country by the United Nations Interagency Task Force (UNIATF) on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs).
The UNIATF visited Bhutan from February 6 to 10 in order to provide support to the government in tackling NCDs – principally cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers, and chronic respiratory diseases and NCD-related conditions.
NCDs a growing concern
In Bhutan, NCDs cause more than half of all deaths, and the probability of dying prematurely from NCDs is 21%. Also more than a quarter of the adult population has hypertension.
Non-communicable diseases is a growing concern in Bhutan;” said the country’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay.
As we live longer and enjoy greater prosperity, we are also succumbing to lifestyle diseases.”
While Bhutan is a development success story with decreasing poverty and improvement in human development, the forces of globalization and urbanization are causing an increase in NCDs in Bhutan.
UNIATF joint mission
Bhutan is the third country in WHO’s South-East Asia Region to host such a mission, which included representatives from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), World Food Programme (WFP), the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), which led the initiative.
During the visit, the Joint Mission met with Bhutan’s Prime Minister, government ministers, parliamentarians and high-level officials from central and local government. Meetings with non-governmental and civil society organisations, academicians and the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce also took place.
Behavioural change needed
In 2016, the Bhutanese government spent approximately USD 2.8 million referring almost 1300 people for medical treatment to India, mostly to treat cancers, and kidney and heart disease, Mr Tobgay said.
This underscores the urgency to take preventive measures,” he adds.
A five-year NCD action plan to promote healthy lifestyles
Bhutan’s government has approved a five-year NCD action plan to promote healthy lifestyles and reduce preventable illnesses in the country.
The UN Mission held detailed discussions with several government ministries, including the Gross National Happiness Commission, on how NCDs are reflected in the upcoming National Five Year Plan. The Mission also had in depth meetings with the UN agencies in Bhutan to identify how its new SDG Plan will support government development and NCDs strategies. Attention was also given to how the UN Country Team can help catalyse government action during the remaining lifetime of the current UN Development Assistance Framework, which ends 2018.
To respond to the challenges of the harmful use of alcohol, Bhutan has developed a comprehensive national alcohol policy framework, highlighting the need to implement regulatory measures to respond to the threat. Also active is a strong grassroots community network aiming to tackle harmful alcohol use.
The harmful use of alcohol is considered an important risk factor for NCDs, which also contributes significantly to premature mortality due to liver cirrhosis as well as family problems and traffic injuries,” says Dr Vladimir Poznyak, Coordinator for the Management of Substance Abuse Team from WHO Headquarters in Geneva who was also part of the mission in Bhutan.
Due to rapid social changes more attention should be paid to the regulation of commercial alcohol that will gradually replace traditional alcohol beverages in the country, particularly among young people.”
Strong UN-system support
The Mission demonstrated that strong UN-system wide support exists to support action on NCDs in Bhutan and around the world. Mr Piet Vochten, UN Resident Coordinator a.i. and WFP Resident Representative in Bhutan, outlined the central role of UN system as a whole in supporting Bhutan tackle NCDs.
We are now seeing how NCDs impact the wellbeing of Bhutan at both individual and community levels, and furthermore is also now a significant drag on the national economy. Combined, NCDs are a real challenge to Bhutan’s sustainable development,” he says.
A report with a set of recommendations for action in Bhutan is currently being finalized by Dr Nick Banatvala, the team leader, and the rest of the Joint Mission, in close collaboration with the Government and the UN team on the ground, to ensure that Bhutan is well placed to report at the Third High-level Meeting on NCDs in 2018 and continue its progress in meeting the NCD-related Sustainable Development Goals.