Why Young People Should Be Frontline Soldiers in the Fight Against Non-Communicable Diseases

There is a great war going on amongst us and our defiant enemy is winning. This war is global and affects people from all walks of life. This war has already taken and injured many of our parents, siblings, relatives, and friends, and it is the highest killer of people every year. This war is between the human population and non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

According to the NCD Alliance, “Noncommunicable diseases are the number one cause of death and disability worldwide. NCDs — mainly cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases, and diabetes — account for 68% of global mortality, or two out of every three deaths.”

Our enemy is using many risk factors to increase the damage it is making on our population. The four key risk factors include: tobacco use, immoderate alcohol use, physical inactivity, and unhealthy diets.

Source: ncdalliance.org

From my point of view, we are losing this war because we are not effectively and efficiently using the biggest resource and soldiers we have: YOUNG PEOPLE.

Young people are the stronghold and the future of humanity, hence our enemy is targeting them strategically. According to WHO, “NCDs are especially important for young people, now and in the future. Two thirds of premature deaths in adults are associated with childhood conditions and behaviours, and behaviour associated with NCD risk factors is common in young people: over 150 million young people smoke; 81% adolescents don’t get enough physical activity; 11.7% of adolescents partake in heavy episodic drinking and 41 million children under 5 years old are overweight or obese.

These patterns are typically initiated during adolescence or young adulthood, and set the stage for unhealthy behaviors and NCDs later in life. However, despite the compelling evidence, young people are still not fully involved in the global and national agendas against NCDs. It is my strong belief that the young generation should take centre stage in this fight against NCDs. Here is how I think young people can be involved:

Spread Awareness

No one can dispute the fact that young people have the masses. According to UNFPA, young people aged 10 to 24 alone make up about one quarter of the world’s population. If that range is increased to include those in their early 30s, the numbers are just breathtaking. Young people have an arsenal of different dangerous weapons we can use to spread the word about the enemy and its risk factors. Taking social media for example. We are the biggest users of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, YouTube, etc.) and can easily start a campaign that can help a lot of people, young and old, learn about NCDs and how to defeat them.

Source: Pew Research Center

Therefore, I urge my fellow youth comrades to start reading about NCDs and its risk factors, and to share about them on social media with hashtags that apply to their geographical settings or globally. Examples include: #enoughNCDs #NoNCDs #NCDsWillLose #NCDFreeGeneration

Engage in Advocacy

Using our masses again, young people can play a big role in holding governments accountable to the polices, promises and treaties they have committed on NCDs both nationally and globally. Our governments have different commitments they have made with regards to dealing with NCDs. For example, the government of my native country Malawi established the NCDs & Mental Health Unit in the Ministry of Health in 2011–2012 Fiscal Year. NCDs were also included in the Malawi Health Sector Strategic Plan (2011–2016) and the first NCDs Action Plan (2012–2016) was developed and launched in 2013.

source: enoughncds.com/

As young people, we have a great responsibility to support civil society by holding our governments accountable for effective implementation of these commitments. This can be done by engaging in policy advocacy aimed at lobbying senior politicians and administrators on the importance of increased attention and budgetary allocations for NCDs. Furthermore, we can engage in program advocacy targeting opinion leaders at the community level on the need for local solutions and action towards the prevention and control of NCDs. Finally, young people can engage in media advocacy to validate the relevance of an advocacy-based approach towards NCDs and encourage the media to cover the importance of youth involvement.

With the UN High-Level Meeting on NCDs set for September 27th, 2018, youth can also advocate for their heads of state to be available during the meeting to represent the key issues from their countries. #IWantMyPresident@UNHLMonNCD.

Attend Policy Discussions and Conferences on NCDs

Young people should be invited and given a platform to effectively participate in national, regional and global NCD meetings, policy discussions and conferences. I applaud NCD Child and the NCD Alliance for providing an opportunity for young leaders to attend The Second Global NCD Alliance in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. This forum was organized under the theme “Stepping up the Pace on NCDs: Making 2018 Count.” The pre-forum youth gathering was framed under the goal of establishing a network of 20 youth advocates focused on the non-communicable disease (NCD) global agenda in the lead up to the UN High Level Meeting on NCDs in 2018.

Left: Photo from the 2nd Global NCD Alliance Forum // Right: Photo from the World Diabetes Foundation Facebook page

As one of the young 20 delegates that attended the forum, I learned a lot about sustainable NCD prevention, management, and treatment, as well as meaningful youth advocacy across key stakeholder groups, including specific and practical strategies in the pre-forum. The striking highlight for me from the forum was prioritization of NCD financing. I really think it’s important to establish NCDs as a priority investment for health and development, building support for cost-effective interventions and sustainable funding models to support national NCD responses. For this reason, I salute the World Diabetes Foundation for organizing an Innovation Lab during the Global Multi-stakeholder Dialogue co-organized by the WHO and the government of Denmark. The Innovation Lab invited 20 carefully selected young talented leaders who worked together to come up with innovative ideas and solutions that can help close the existing financing gap for NCDs. This video shared on the World Diabetes Foundation page should really motivate many young soldiers to join the fight against NCDs.

Join or Establish Youth NCD Forums

We can also make a difference and learn more about NCDs by joining youth organisations that work on NCDs, such as the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network (YP-CDN). You can establish one in your community as I did in Malawi by starting the Malawi Youth NCD forum.

Our future is at risk. Let’s all join hands to make it brighter. United we stand, divided we fall. Our generation will defeat NCDs.

Gabriel Kamowatimwa is a 2017–2018 Global Health Corps fellow at Dignitas International.

Global Health Corps is a leadership development organization building the next generation of health equity leaders around the world. All GHC fellows, partners, and supporters are united in a common belief: health is a human right. Want to get involved? Check out these great opportunities to support the health equity movement and consider joining us as a fellow or partner when applications open later this year! And don’t forget to connect with us on Twitter / Instagram / Facebook.