New WMA President Highlights Three Challenges Facing World

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(12.10.2012) The challenge of non-communicable diseases, the moral imperative of ethics in medicine and the threat of climate change were highlighted by Dr. Cecil Wilson, in his inaugural speech today as the new President of the World Medical Association.

He said these three challenges are facing the world, the WMA and the medical profession. Speaking at the WMA's annual General Assembly in Bangkok, Thailand, Dr. Wilson said non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease, are now the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. This is true both in the developed and the developing world. These diseases are expected to increase in frequency, but are largely preventable; and they are not replacing existing causes of illness, such as infectious disease, but adding to the disease burden.

Dr. Wilson, an internist from Florida, USA, and a past President of the American Medical Association, went on: ‘Developing countries face the triple burden of infectious disease, trauma and chronic disease. The causes of non-communicable diseases are smoking, obesity, physical inactivity and alcohol abuse - all lifestyle behaviours. The primary solution is disease prevention'.

The WMA is promoting national policies to help people achieve healthy lifestyles and behaviour, increased access to primary care and a strengthening of the health care infrastructure to care for the increasing numbers of people with chronic disease. But life style behaviours, such as smoking, obesity and alcohol abuse are only part of the story of NCDs. The root causes of the causes of NCDs are the social determinants of health - the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, and society's influences on these conditions.

These are the major influences on both quality of life, including good health, and length of disability-free life. In many societies, unhealthy behaviour is higher in people on the lower end of the social gradient.

Dr. Wilson added: ‘The lower they are in the socioeconomic hierarchy the more they smoke, the worse their diet and the less physical activity they engage in, putting them at increased risk of non-communicable disease. Lower levels of education have the same effect - increased risk of non-communicable disease.'

He said that for governments, understanding this concept means that all policies need to be evaluated for their effect on the health of their citizens. This means not just one designated minister of health, but all ministers are health ministers.

And the medical profession has an important role to play in seeking action on these social conditions, the causes of the causes that have such important effects on health.

In his speech to 300 delegates from more than 50 national medical associations, Dr. Wilson also spoke about the importance of the WMA's voice on global standards for medical ethics rather than focusing solely on protecting the interests of the medical profession. And finally he said that the threat of climate change is already having significant health effects; with extreme heat killing tens of thousands around the globe, flooding causing water-borne disease and worldwide disruption of the food and water supplies. He said governments have to strengthen public health systems to improve the capacity of communities to adapt to these changes.

Dr. Wilson takes over as WMA President from Dr. Jose Gomes do Amaral of Brazil and will serve until October 2013.