GENEVA

Prevention and treatment of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, accounting for 71% of annual deaths, have been severely disrupted since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday.

A new WHO survey completed by 155 countries during three weeks in May confirmed that the impact is global but showed that low-income countries are the most affected.

WHO said the situation is of significant concern because people living with NCDs are at higher risk of severe novel coronavirus-related diseases and deaths.

“The results of this survey confirm what we have been hearing from countries for a number of weeks now,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Many people who need treatment for diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes have not been receiving the health services and medicines they need since the COVID-19 pandemic began.”

Noncommunicable diseases kill 41 million people each year, equivalent to 71% of all deaths globally. Each year, 15 million people die from an NCD between the ages of 30 and 69, with more than 85% of these “premature” deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries.

The most common reasons for discontinuing or reducing services were cancelations of planned treatments, a decrease in public transport available, and a lack of staff because health workers had been reassigned to support COVID-19 services.

In one in five countries (20%) reporting disruptions, one of the main reasons for discontinuing services was a shortage of medicines, diagnostics, and other technologies.

Tedros said it is vital that countries innovate ways to ensure that essential services for NCDs continue, even as they fight COVID-19.

The main finding of the WHO survey is that health services have been partially or entirely disrupted in many countries.

More than half (53%) of the countries surveyed have partially or wholly disrupted services for hypertension treatment, 49% for diabetes and diabetes-related complications, 42% for cancer treatment, and 31% for cardiovascular emergencies.

Rehabilitation services have been disrupted in almost two-thirds (63%) of countries, even though rehabilitation is key to a healthy recovery following a severe illness from COVID-19.

In the majority (94%) of countries responding, Health Ministry staff working on NCDs were partially or fully reassigned to support COVID-19.

The postponement of public screening programs (for example, for breast and cervical cancer) was also widespread, reported by more than 50% of countries.

“Unsurprisingly, there appears to be a correlation between levels of disruption to services for treating NCDs and the evolution of the COVID-19 outbreak in a country,” said the WHO.

Services become increasingly disrupted as a country moves from sporadic cases to community transmission of the coronavirus.

Globally, two-thirds of countries reported that they had included NCD services in their national COVID-19 preparedness and response plans, while 72% of high-income countries reported inclusion compared to 42% of low-income countries.

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