Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have become Bhutan’s biggest health challenge. More than 5 percent of all deaths in the country is attributed to NCDs.

What we need to recognise is that we are in the early stage of demographic transition. World Bank’s Bhutan NCD policy brief estimates that by 2025, the proportion of ageing population (65 years and above) will increase from 4.4 to 7.3 percent. What this means is that prevalence of NCDs will also rise, putting pressure on the country’s healthcare cost significantly in the coming years. Health officials say that referral cases and costs, mostly for advanced NCDs, have been doubling over the years.

As economic growth and modernisation continue to open many doors for the spread of unhealthy lifestyles, sustaining free basic healthcare system will be a major challenge.

Because NCDs are preventable, it is important that we integrated early detection, screening and treatment by developing surveillance systems and building capacity of health professionals. Health experts tell us that the cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of taking action on NCDs and that there are interventions for prevention and control of NCDs that are affordable and can give good return on investments. This means our policy actions and structural interventions have to be aligned with specific targets to reduce the incidence of NCDs.

Recognising that NCDs prevention and control is central to the country’s plans for a sustainable future, health ministry has proposed that 53 percent of the finance and materials to address NCDs would be at the district level in the 12th Plan. We already have action plan and targets to reduce incidences of NCDs. For example, we have a target to reduce harmful use of alcohol by five percent by 2020, a percent each year, and by 10 percent by 2025.

But our effort to reduce NCD cases should focus beyond policy action and targets. How well we advocate change in the way our people live and what they should eat will make a significant difference. Physical inactivity is high among our population, and alcohol abuse is a serious concern. Unhealthy diet like low consumption of fruits and vegetables, high intake of salt, and high consumption of saturated and trans fats are the major contributors that give rise to NCDs.

Change in our food habits alone can prevent many NCD cases.