NEW YORK - With more than 10,000 known diseases affecting our world and viable treatments for only 500 of them, hundreds of patient advocates, researchers, investors and policymakers gathered here in America’s financial capital at an annual Faster Cures conference in November with a clear focus. They were working to save lives by speeding up and improving the U.S. medical research system.
The shared purpose of the conference attendees is critical also to Japan and the rest of Asia — to foster the collaboration needed to speed medical progress and improve health outcomes. The nonprofit organization Faster Cures is a center of the Milken Institute, where I serve as the nonpartisan think tank’s first Asia Fellow.
In developing Asia, governments remain vigilant in their focus on infectious diseases such as dengue fever, cholera and malaria as well as emerging threats like the Zika virus. Even Japan has seen the threat of infectious diseases such as dengue and been on guard as travelers return from areas where such diseases are endemic. Yet, collaboration and commitment are also necessary in the face of a growing “noninfectious” threat to the region’s health and well-being.
That is the rise of so-called lifestyle diseases. Diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease impact the health of citizens of both developed and developing nations in ever larger numbers. Changing diets and increasingly urbanized and sedentary lives, as in the West, are driving an increase in the prevalence of such noncommunicable diseases in Asia.
Asia’s developing nations have reduced mortality rates over the last 30 years as public health experts have focused on infectious diseases. Child mortality rates are down. Mothers are surviving childbirth. People are living longer in India and China, representing the vast majority of Asia’s population.
These and other nations, however, must focus too on lifestyle-related health worries. World Health Organization data show dramatic increases in diabetes and heart disease as Asia has grown richer. Even Asia’s poorest nations such as Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan are seeing lifestyle diseases take their toll.
A recent Milken Institute Asia Center report makes clear that poor nutrition and obesity pose a severe public health challenge across large parts of Asia, taxing public health systems and posing significant risks for future generations.
Data from the WHO underscore the challenge. According to a report from last March, the number of adults living with diabetes globally has increased to 422 million from 108 million in 1980. The western Pacific region, including China and Japan, now accounts for 131 million of that number.
Diabetes is expected to be the world’s seventh-largest killer by 2030 if present trends continue without intervention.
While 60 percent of U.S., British and even Australian adults are now classified as overweight, developing Asia has some fairly heavyweight concerns of its own. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia leads with some 37 percent deemed overweight. Thailand follows with some 31.6 percent, according to the WHO. Japan, Malaysia and Thailand have also now surpassed the United States when it comes to the percentage suffering from diabetes.
Governments, businesses and development banks and aid agencies have helped reduce the spread of infectious diseases by addressing Asia’s infrastructure shortcomings. The Asian Development Bank and Japan’s own aid and development agencies have helped address a lack of sufficient water supply, sanitation and waste management systems in developing Asia. Now, all sectors also must partner to address the growing lifestyle disease challenge.
Public health education will play a critical role in helping Asian consumers understand the consequences on their health of changing eating habits and reduced exercise and physical activity. Good nutrition must be made both accessible and understandable.
Businesses in Asia also must take more responsibility for the health consequences of their products and services. Restaurants and food providers voluntarily offering calorie information and smaller portion options would benefit these businesses, possibly by forestalling costly government mandates and labeling requirements.
And where there are new challenges, there are also new opportunities for businesses, including Japanese companies, from fitness centers to producers of diet foods. I know this well through my own work with Equator Pure Nature, a Southeast Asia-based company that has capitalized on Asia’s growing demand for healthier products, such as its Pipper Standard-branded natural detergents, amid rising allergy and asthma rates and growing concerns about air pollution. Consumers are responding to the message that a healthier environment starts at home.
Among the United Nations’ 17 new Sustainable Development Goals is a target of ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being for all at all ages. Ultimately, meeting this healthy lifestyle goal of the U.N. 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must include cutting through the roadblocks that slow medical progress and improved health care results.
As underscored by the most recent Faster Cures conference, impacting health outcomes will require the spurring of cross-sector collaboration, cultivating a culture of innovation and engaging patients as partners in their own care.
Medical research as well as the delivery of health care can be complex, inefficient and underfunded even in the most developed of nations such as the U.S. or Japan.
Asia’s leaders, in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, must embrace a policy approach that speeds a more effective response to both infectious and lifestyle diseases. Doing so will further Asia’s continued growth and prosperity, and help pave the way for a healthier and wealthier region. It is time to address the lifestyle challenge to a healthier Asian economic environment.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC.