The need for more effective communication on non-communicable diseases

The nursing students carry out screening for Non Communicable Diseases. File.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), or chronic diseases, are increasing at an alarming rate, causing more deaths and disabilities across the globe than any other ailment.

The world is under attack but the education about the new shift of epidemiology is fundamentally complex, slow and insufficient – the reason why most people still consider HIV/AIDS as the worst thing that ever happened to mankind.

And rightly so; because for many, the definition of NCDs is not yet clear, or too complex to understand. But let’s talk about asthma, heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, stroke, or mental health, individually. Some people have a relatively higher level of understanding, or at least testimonies and personal connection with one of these.

With almost all the diseases sharing the same prevention mechanisms and risk factors, it is accurate to group them under the NCDs umbrella.

However, one important piece of the puzzle has been left out: communication and raising awareness about the issue.

The main challenge for healthcare professionals and other actors in the health arena has always been how to accurately connect the issue to (NCDs) media, law and policymakers.

At global advocacy level, NCDs are getting attention and momentum towards prevention and treatment, thanks to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) high level commission on NCDs, the UN’s high level Meeting of Heads of State on NCDs, and the inclusion of specific targets for NCDs in Sustainable Development Goals.

However, considering the unhealthy influence and lobbying of multinational companies dealing in tobacco, fast food and, sweetened and alcoholic beverages — all products being the leading risk factors of NCDs; it is high time that the media picks a much deeper interest in educating the general public about the chronic, also known as lifestyle-diseases.

As healthcare professionals, the public health community and civil society, it is our ultimate responsibility to articulate the meaning and public health implications of these diseases in such a simple way that anyone with limited background in the health sphere can understand.

Here are four communication tips to attract the purpose of tackling NCDs on a larger scope:

1. Frame it in relation to other issues

Always, when talking about NCDs, emphasise on the fact that these diseases are a major hindrance to economic growth, which leads to poverty and social injustice.

2. Frame it as a human rights issue.

Provide a platform to champions and people living with NCDs. Providing space and engaging survivors and other individuals living with, or affected by NCDs, has proved to be an effective way of communicating the burden posed by NCDs.

People like Rwanda’s Karen Bugingo, who is now cancer-free and the author of the book ‘My name is life’ which depicts her battle with cancer, are the kind of people who carry voices of hope, and can naturally transmit the right message.

3. Know when to break it down and bring it back together

It is always important to talk about a disease individually, in case there is need to narrow down the focus on that specific disease. For example, every September is dedicated to raising awareness about childhood cancers across the world.

In Rwanda, a series of activities, including teaching sessions, awareness campaigns and visits to hospitals, are carried out to educate the general public about risk factors, preventive measures and treatment of the childhood cancers – thanks to Rwanda Children’s Cancer Relief, a youth-led organisation that has devoted its time and resources to pushing the agenda.

Another example is the ‘Car Free Day’ initiative, which the Government of Rwanda put in place to allow people to freely do physical exercises, get screened and advised on NCDs prevention.

4. Engage the youth

Youth and children account for nearly 40 per cent of the world’s population, and over 60 per cent of the African population fall below the age of 25. This is alarming especially because young people are the target market for tobacco and alcohol industries, not to mention junk food.

It is important to put young people at the forefront in the fight, and harness their creativity while educating them about the diseases and risk factors.

Meaningful engagement of the youth in the prevention and awareness of NCDs ensures reduction of NCDs prevalence now, and in future.

The author is the CEO of Unitia Pharmaceuticals.