As Bhutan searches to find its own path to healthy economic growth, I share a lesson or two from a recent trip to New York.
There, hundreds of patient advocates, researchers, investors, and policymakers gathered at an annual Faster Cures conference this 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 Bhutan and the rest of Asia – to foster the collaboration needed to speed medical progress and improve health outcomes. The non-profit organization Faster Cures is a center of the Milken Institute, where I serve as the non-partisan 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. Yet, collaboration and commitment are also necessary in the face of a growing, “non-infectious” threat to the region’s and Bhutan’s long-term 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 non-communicable diseases in Asia.
Asia’s developing nations have reduced mortality rates over the last 30 years as public health experts have focused on infectious disease. 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 less developed nations such as Bhutan, Cambodia and Laos 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.
WHO data underscore the challenge. According to a March 2016 report, 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 7th largest killer by 2030 if present trends continue without interventions.
While 60 percent of U.S., British and even Australian adults are now classified as overweight, developing Asia has some fairly heavy-weight concerns of its own. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia leads with some 37% deemed overweight. Thailand follows with some 31.6%, according to the WHO. Japan, Malaysia and Thailand have also now surpassed the United States when it comes to the percentage suffering from diabetes.
In Bhutan, some 24.8 % of adults are deemed overweight, and 9.2 % suffer from diabetes, according to the WHO. These numbers are likely to increase over time as the nation follows the path of the rest of developing Asia.
Governments, business, aid agencies and international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank have helped reduce the spread of infectious diseases by addressing Asia’s including Bhutan’s infrastructure shortcomings. Now, all sectors also must partner to address the growing lifestyle disease challenge.
Public health education will play a critical role in helping Bhutan’s 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 the products and services. Restaurants and food providers voluntarily offering calorie information and smaller portion options will also be to the benefit of responsible businesses, possibly forestalling costly government mandates and labeling requirements.
And where there are new challenges, there are also new opportunities for business including Asia’s emerging companies, from fitness centers to producers of diet foods. I know this well through my own work with Equator Pure Nature, a Thailand-based company that has capitalized on Asia’s growing demand for healthier products, such as its Pipper Standard-branded natural detergents, amidst 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 healthcare 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. Strikingly, more than 10,000 known diseases affect our world, and yet there are viable treatments for only 500 of them.
Medical research as well as the delivery of healthcare can be complex, inefficient, and underfunded even in the most developed of nations such as the United States.
Asia’s leaders in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors, including in Thimphu, must embrace a policy approach that speeds a more effective response to both infectious and lifestyle diseases. Doing so will contribute to continued growth and prosperity, and help pave the way for a healthier and wealthier region. As Bhutan develops, it too must 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.