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October 24th, 2008:

Burden Of Chronic Diseases ‘Increasing’

Ella Lee in Beijing – SCMP | Updated on Oct 24, 2008

The burden of non-communicable diseases was getting heavier for the mainland, as they now took up almost two-thirds of national health-care expenditure and cause 80 per cent of all deaths in the country, senior health officials said yesterday.

Vice-Minister of Health Yin Li said that efforts to control chronic diseases – a key part of the coming health-care reform – would have to take into account challenges such as an ageing population, unhealthy diets and the stressful lifestyle caused by urbanisation.

“Early treatment is a kind of prevention,” Mr Yin said. “The government has made preventive care a big part of health-care reform, and it will help reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases.”

The vice-minister was speaking at a policy seminar on health and development organised in Beijing by the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organisation and the World Bank. The seminar discussed ways of dealing with chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hypertension.

Officials and experts from the WHO and World Bank called on Beijing to introduce more cost-effective prevention programmes. They also want more details about the upcoming reform.

The WHO estimates lost productivity in China due to chronic diseases between 2005 and 2015 will cost more than US$550 billion.

In 2006, chronic diseases took up 620 billion yuan (HK$705.35 billion) or 64 per cent of total health expenditure in China, and cost 3.6 billion man-work days. The WHO said about 80 per cent of heart diseases and 40 per cent of cancers could be prevented. Tobacco control remains a big challenge for the mainland, which has 320 million smokers, most of them men.

Alan Alwan, WHO’s assistant director general, said the high prevalence of smoking was a “very serious” problem in the country.

The health-care reform aims to provide medical insurance to the whole population by 2020.

Dr Alwan said Beijing must make sure that poor people had access to basic health care.

“The government has to agree on a package of selected cost-effective interventions, which can be financed through taxation, subsidies or a social insurance system. Tobacco control through taxation, inexpensive treatment for heart diseases and promotion of physical exercise are all good examples,” he said.

John Langenbrunner, lead economist for the human development sector of the World Bank, welcomed the health-care reform but said the consultation document lacked details.

“People in the street may find it hard to understand the document because it does not say how the reform relates to them,” Dr Langenbrunner said.

Lack of accessible and affordable health care means chronic diseases are a big economic burden to mainland patients.

A Ministry of Health analysis showed that a single hospital admission could cost more than half of an urban dweller’s annual income, or 150 per cent of a rural dweller’s.

Rao Keqin, director general of the ministry’s information and statistics centre, said controlling chronic diseases was important for the country, as among the 8.55 million deaths on the mainland each year, 80 per cent, or 6.85 million, were caused by such illnesses.

Dr Rao said part of the health-care reform was to introduce a basic drug system to control the prices of 400 essential medicines.

He said that in 2005, the profits of selling drugs on the mainland had reached 450 billion yuan, with 300 billion yuan going to pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, and the rest to the manufacturers.