‘Epidemic’ Of Disease In China Threatens Economic And Social Well-Being, Warns The World Bank

Children exercising in China. Photo courtesy of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill School Of Public Health.

The World Bank warns that a growing “epidemic” of disease in China is threatening the country’s economic and social well-being and that pro-active steps must be taken to ensure this trend is curbed.

The newly-released report Toward a Healthy and Harmonious Life in China: Stemming the Rising Tide of Non-Communicable Diseases was prepared in coordination with the Chinese Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization, based on assessments conducted by the World Bank in 2008-2010. It presents evidence on the economic and social consequences of explosive increases in non-communicable diseases in China and proposes a range of policies and strategies to confront and prevent them.

According to the report, the number of cases of cardiovascular diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, diabetes and lung cancer among Chinese people over age 40 will double or even triple over the next two decades if effective prevention and control strategies are not implemented. This trend is rooted in the social, economic, and environmental changes the country has experienced in recent decades, in particular, the rapid aging of the population and exposure to health risk factors such as high smoking rates among males, growing obesity due to increased consumption of fast foods rich in fat and salt, sugar-rich soft drinks and decreased physical activity in cities.

Key findings of the report include:

  • Based on current trends, the Chinese can expect to live only 66 “healthy years” (years free from disease and disability).
  • Non-communicable chronic diseases (NCDs) are the leading cause of death in China.
  • NCD mortality in China is higher than in other leading G-20 countries.

Non-communicable chronic diseases are the leading cause of death in China, accounting for close to 70 percent of the disease burden and over 80 percent of the 10.3 million deaths caused by all diseases annually. The four leading NCDs in China are cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. NCD mortality in China is higher than in other leading G-20 countries: for stroke it is four to six times higher than in Japan, the United States and France, and mortality due to chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases is about 30 times as high as in Japan.

Klaus Rohland, World Bank Country Director for China, said that “First and foremost, it is the human toll that should concern policy-makers when addressing NCDs. Mounting medical costs have a severe impact on individual and families when NCD occurs, and loss of loved ones causes immense grief that could have been avoided with the right policies in place. But there is substantial economic cost associated with NCDs as well.”

The report encourages China to take immediate steps to stem the tide of rising disease and states that over 50 percent of the NCD burden is preventable by modifying health and biological risk factors. Tobacco use; harmful alcohol use; poor diet, particularly high consumption of fast foods rich in fat and salt and sugar-rich soft drinks; and physical inactivity are the main risk factors.

If an effective response is not mounted, warns the report, the disease burden will aggravate the economic and social impact of the expected population increase of older citizens and a smaller workforce in China. The report notes that a less healthy workforce and an elderly population that is chronically ill will increase the odds of a future economic slowdown and pose significant social challenges in China.

Beyond the enormous public health implications, there are substantial – and preventable – economic consequences associated with these diseases. For example, estimates for China done for the report indicate that the economic benefit of reducing cardiovascular disease mortality by 1 percent per year over a 30-year period (2010–2040) could generate an economic value equivalent to 68 percent of China’s real GDP in 2010, or more than US$ 10.7 trillion.

If not controlled effectively, the report warns that “NCDs will not only exacerbate the expected labor force shortages but also compromise the quality of human capital, because more than 50 percent of the NCD burden currently falls on the economically active population, people aged 15–64.” Furthermore, a reduced ratio of workers to dependents with poor health would increase the odds of a future economic slowdown and present significant social challenges.

The World Bank identifies the coming ten years as a critical time for China to prevent and control the ‘epidemic’, stressing that much of the country’s NCD burden can be avoided or managed by adopting good practices that have been proven effective internationally, tailored to local conditions.

“Cost-effective policy options exist for adopting a comprehensive multisectoral response to deal with NCDs in China,” said Shiyong Wang, a World Bank Senior Health Specialist and the lead author of the report. “With more healthy behavior, improved socioeconomic environments conducive to health, and expanded access to quality health services, not only do people live longer, but their quality of life is also improved by the reduction of sickness and disability.”

The report concludes that a healthier and more productive population is critical to ensuring sustainable economic growth and harmonious social development in China over the medium and longer term.

This video features Shiyong Wang, Senior Health Specialist at the World Bank, discussing the disease trends in China:

You can view additional videos about the social and economic impact of disease as well as the organization’s recommendations for prevention here.

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