UNICEF Begins to Tackle NCDs in Children and Adolescents

The following is a guest blog from Jeff Meer, Special Advisor for Global Health Policy and Development at the Public Health Institute (PHI). 

Dr. Nicholas Alipui, director of programs at UNICEF, announced last week that the agency has decided to update its iconic information resource “Facts for Life” to include information about non communicable diseases (NCDs) in children and adolescents. Speaking at a Ministerial breakfast as part of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on July 6, Dr. Alipui said that by updating “Facts for Life” with information about NCDs, ordinary people the world over will have access to vital information they need about preventing NCDs in children and adolescents, as well as non-technical information about diagnosis and treatment.

“Facts for Life,” first published in 1989, has 14 chapters devoted to ensuring children’s rights to survival, growth, development and well-being. The information is presented in simple and compelling language and clear images for use among families and communities the world over. The new chapter on NCDs will be ready in “about a year,” according to Dr. Alipui.

Speaking to UN member states at the breakfast, Dr. Alipui said that UNICEF has decided to keep the face of children and adolescents squarely in front of the NCD community.  “It is a fallacy that NCDs affect only older people,” he said, “just as it is untrue that NCDs only affect the wealthy.”  NCDs including cancer, diabetes, chronic heart disease and chronic lung disease represent the cause of almost two thirds of all deaths worldwide today. “UNICEF believes that the best way to approach NCDs is to adopt a lifestyle perspective,” Dr. Alipui said.

The Ministerial Breakfast, entitled “Working Well! Safeguarding Adolescents and Youth Livelihood in the Face of NCDs and their Risk Factors” was co-sponsored by UNICEF, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and NCD Child (PHI is a member of the steering committee of NCD Child). The breakfast was moderated by Henry Mac-Donald, the Permanent Representative of Suriname to the United Nations.  Dr. Arturo Cervantes Trejo, General Director of Mexico’s National Center for Injury Prevention at the Ministry of Health, delivered closing remarks.  Speakers included Dr. John Andrus, deputy director of PAHO, Sir George Alleyne, former PAHO executive director, and Dr. Kate Armstrong, President of the Australian NGO Caring and Living as Neighbors.  Representatives from at least 15 member states, including the United States, attended.

Member state representatives reviewed several documents at the breakfast, including the Oakland Statement on NCDs in Children and Adolescents, as well as an issues paper prepared by NCD Child on the effects of NCDs on employment of young people.

Following the breakfast, Dr. Alipui reconvened interested representatives from nonprofits and for-profit corporations at UNICEF headquarters for further informal conversations. Here, he continued the theme he had discussed in the Ministerial Breakfast, noting that “the heaviest burdens are now squarely in younger generations and in lower and middle-income countries.”  According to Dr. Alipui, there is widespread recognition now that NCDs have origins very early in life, and so only a lifecycle approach will work to prevent and treat them.  “This completes the circle for UNICEF,” he said “instead of focusing on one set of issues, we need to focus on the entire set of issues that children, adolescents and their families face.”

UNICEF: Climate change among most serious problems facing global youth

In its recent reportThe State of the World’s Children 2011, UNICEF includes climate change among the most serious issues confronting the next generation. Youth will have to confront climate change long after our current leaders have died. But, even now, they are disproportionately affected by it.

“Natural disasters are increasingly frequent,” the report notes, and “[a]t times of crisis, children and adolescents are most vulnerable. While the youngest are most likely to perish or succumb to disease, all children and young people suffer as a result of food shortages, poor water and sanitation, interrupted education and family separation or displacement.”

While it’s widely recognized that developing countries will be hit harder by climate change than the industrialized world, the report offers this additional piece of information: 88 percent of all adolescents live in developing countries.

There may be a silver lining: UNICEF sees an opportunity for young people to become “effective agents of change for the long-term protection and stewardship of the earth if” — and it’s a crucial if — “they are provided with knowledge and opportunity.” Among young people climate skepticism is all but unheard of, and youth groups have repeatedly called for immediate and aggressive action against climate change.

It’s a testament to how serious an issue climate change is that a report with as broad a focus as “youth” hones in on it. The human lens on the problem also leads to an acknowledgement of the diversity of effects climate change will have on us: “Climate change is not just an ‘environmental’ issue,” says UNICEF, echoing a claim that we at ClimateHealthConnect find ourselves making regularly. “It requires collective action that brings together sustainable development, energy security, and actions to safeguard children’s health and well-being.”

Among those that don’t care about glaciers or polar bears, there must be many who do care about human health. And among those who don’t care much about health, perhaps there will be some who do care about children.


*Photo courtesy of Stoonn.