Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the biggest health challenge facing the country today. Rise in preventable deaths over the years have been staggering; referral cases and costs, mostly for advanced NCDs, have been doubling over the years.

According to World Health Organisation, close to 70 percent of all deaths in the country is attributed to NCDs.

Because we are in the early stage of demographic transition, prevalence of NCDs will rise considerably in the coming years, putting pressure on the country’s healthcare cost. 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 as economic growth and modernisation continue to open varied doors for the spread of unhealthy lifestyles, sustaining free basic healthcare system will be a serious challenge for the country.

Recognising that NCDs prevention and control is central to the country’s plans for a sustainable future, the health ministry 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.

Tackling the rise of NCDs does not fall on health ministry alone. Our plans and programmes to address the growing problem ought to be multi-sectorial. Perhaps, as recommended, we could begin by increasing fiscal space for integrating NCD prevention and control in sectoral budget and creating enabling environment for healthy lifestyles in schools, institutions and workplaces. In all our approaches and interventions so far, these have been lacking.

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. How well we advocate change in the way our people live and what they should eat will make a significant difference. The cost of inaction far outweighs the cost of taking action on NCDs.

At an event organised by WHO and health ministry in Thimphu on December 11, parliamentarians were apprised of the opportunities we have in dealing with the biggest health concerns facing the nation today which must begin with strong political will.

These are serious warnings. Politicians and decision-makers must heed the urgent call of an ailing nation.