The global community is riveted when pandemics – outbreaks that occur worldwide, cross international boundaries and affect large numbers of people – emerge. Sadly, our attention rarely focuses on diseases of equal or greater consequence that also occur worldwide with devastating health effects, but that are not infectious. Hypertension is one such “panglobal” disease – usually silent but too often deadly.

Along with diabetes and hyperlipidaemia, these obesity-related diseases are drivers of the global increase in cardiovascular disease, stroke and kidney failure. According to the WHO, “The great epidemics of tomorrow are unlikely to resemble those that have previously swept the world, thanks to progress in infectious disease control. While the risk of outbreaks, such as a new influenza pandemic, will require constant vigilance, it is the ‘invisible’ epidemics of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and other chronic diseases that for the foreseeable future will take the greatest toll in deaths and disability.”

Of the projected 64 million people who will die in 2015, 41 million will die of a chronic disease. High-income nations are experiencing significant rises in costly, long-term illnesses, but middle- and low-income countries bear the largest burden: 80% of deaths attributable to chronic disease occur outside high-income nations. These diseases also diminish quality of life, increase family poverty and deplete the quality and quantity of nations’ workforces, reducing productivity and lowering GDP.

The remarkable truth is that the vast majority of chronic diseases and the premature mortality they cause are preventable. Innovative healthcare solutions are available now and more are in the pipeline to effectively treat these conditions and their consequences once they occur. Unfortunately, low awareness, lack of access to simple diagnostics, difficulty in obtaining affordable medicines and challenges in sticking to a treatment regimen pose formidable barriers. We must – and can – do better. On a global basis, the single most important step would be to put serious investments in policies and programmes that prevent hypertension and other chronic conditions in the first place.

Global health can be enriched and preserved by investments that promote physical activity, prohibit tobacco use, encourage healthy food choices and support satisfying social networks. But individuals, communities, corporations and governments must act together to protect and sustain people’s health. Health is not just a state of being, it is a precious personal and national resource. All stakeholders must know and embrace their personal and collective responsibility to avoid preventable chronic diseases.

In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April. 

Author: Julie Louise Gerberding is President of Merck Vaccines, MSD, USA and was Director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2002-2009.

Image: Morning commuters in the Grand Central Terminal in New York March REUTERS/Adrees Latif