A strong Asian economic environment demands healthy choices


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As Cambodia plays host to a growing number of franchises, including fast food restaurants that have long littered the streets of American cities, some lessons from a recent trip to New York come to mind.

More than 10,000 known diseases affect our world and yet there are viable treatments for only 500 of them. With this sobering fact, hundreds of patient advocates, researchers, investors and policymakers gathered in America’s financial capital at an annual Faster Cures conference in November with a clear purpose. They were working to save lives by speeding up and improving America’s medical research system.

The shared goal of conference attendees is also critical for Cambodia and the rest of Asia: fostering the collaboration needed to accelerate medical advancements and improve health outcomes. The non-profit organization Faster Cures is a center of the Milken Institute, where I am the first Asia Fellow of the non-partisan think tank.

In developing Asia, including Cambodia, governments remain vigilant in their focus on infectious diseases such as dengue, cholera and malaria as well as on emerging threats such as the Zika virus. Even developed Japan has seen the threat of infectious diseases such as dengue fever and has been on guard when travelers return from areas where these diseases are endemic. Yet collaboration and commitment are also needed in the face of a growing, “non-infectious” threat to the health and well-being of the region.

It is the rise of so-called “lifestyle diseases”. Diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease have an increasingly important impact on the health of citizens in developed and developing countries. Changing diets and an increasingly urbanized and sedentary life, as in the West, are leading to an increase in the prevalence of these noncommunicable diseases in Asia.

Developing countries in Asia have reduced death rates over the past 30 years, with public health experts focusing on infectious diseases. Infant mortality rates are falling. Mothers survive childbirth. People are living longer in India and China, making up the vast majority of the Asian population.

These countries and others, however, must also focus on lifestyle health issues. Data from the World Health Organization shows a dramatic increase in diabetes and heart disease as Asia gets richer. Even the poorest countries in Asia like Cambodia, Laos and Bhutan are seeing lifestyle diseases take their toll.

A recent report from the Milken Institute Asia Center makes it clear that poor nutrition and obesity pose a serious public health problem in large parts of Asia, taxing public health systems and posing significant risks to future generations.

WHO data underscores the challenge. According to a March 2016 report, the number of adults living with diabetes worldwide has increased to 422 million from 108 million in 1980. The Western Pacific region, including China and Japan, now has 131 million of those. number.

Diabetes is expected to be the 7th killer in the world by 2030 if current trends continue without intervention. While 60 percent of American, British, and even Australian adults are now classified as overweight, developing Asia itself has some pretty significant issues.

In Southeast Asia, Malaysia leads with 37% overweight. Thailand follows with around 31.6%, according to the WHO. About 24.4% of Indonesians are considered overweight. Japan, Malaysia and Thailand also surpassed the United States in the percentage of people with diabetes.

In Cambodia, 16.4 percent are considered overweight and 5.9 percent have diabetes, according to the WHO. Although they are relatively small, they are likely to increase over time as the country follows the path of the rest of developing Southeast Asia.

Governments, businesses, development banks and aid agencies have helped reduce the spread of infectious diseases by addressing infrastructure gaps in Asia, including Cambodia. Now all sectors must also come together to meet the growing challenge of lifestyle diseases.

Public health education will play a critical role in helping Asian consumers understand the health consequences of changing eating habits and reducing exercise and physical activity. Good nutrition should be both accessible and understandable.

Asian companies must also take greater responsibility for the health consequences of products and services. Restaurants and food vendors voluntarily offering calorie information and smaller portioning options will also benefit responsible businesses, perhaps avoiding government mandates and costly labeling requirements.

And where there are new challenges, there are also new opportunities for businesses, including businesses in Southeast Asia, from fitness centers to health food producers. I know this from my own work with Equator Pure Nature, a Thailand-based company that has capitalized on the growing demand for healthier products in Asia, such as its Pipper Standard brand natural detergents, against a backdrop of allergies and rising asthma and growing air concerns. Pollution. Consumers are responding to the message that a healthier environment begins at home.

Among the 17 new United Nations “Sustainable Development Goals” is the goal of ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages. Ultimately, achieving this healthy lifestyle goal of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must include removing the barriers that slow medical progress and improve health care outcomes.

As the most recent Faster Cures conference highlighted, making an impact on health outcomes will require stimulating cross-sector collaboration, cultivating a culture of innovation and involving patients as partners in their own care.
Medical research as well as the delivery of health care can be complex, inefficient and underfunded, even in the most developed countries like the United States or Japan.

Asian leaders in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors must adopt a policy approach that accelerates a more effective response to infectious and lifestyle-related diseases. This will contribute to Asia’s continued growth and prosperity and help pave the way for a healthier and richer region. As Cambodia develops, it also faces the lifestyle challenge for a healthier Asian economic environment.

Curtis S Chin, former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is Managing Director of consulting firm RiverPeak Group, LLC

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