For people with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, diabetes or cancer, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on their health, revealing how vulnerable they are. The Lancet recently published a paper highlighting the importance of NCDs and obesity-related conditions in the COVID-19 response.
The WHO European Region is the region most affected by NCD-related morbidity and mortality globally. Restrictive measures during the COVID-19 pandemic have presented a challenge to maintaining appropriate levels of physical activity and accessing healthy food. Significantly reduced physical activity, including travel to work and other places, exercise and sports for recreational purposes, may lead to an increase in obesity and risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. This highlights the need for focusing on the unintended effects of the COVID-19 response – ensuring that health systems do not forget to pay attention to prevention and control of NCDs during this pandemic.
“Before COVID-19, the WHO European Region had a high burden of NCDs and childhood obesity. Physical distancing or quarantine, and the associated stress, can increase risk factors for NCDs like unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, and harmful use of tobacco and alcohol,” said Dr João Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.
Lockdowns, physical distancing and travel restrictions in many countries impact people living with NCDs in many ways, as people:
- limit their physical activity;
- have lower access to healthy and fresh foods;
- have less access to preventive and health promotion services;
- are more exposed to other NCD behavioural risk factors, including tobacco use and harmful use of alcohol.
A streamlined response to COVID-19 in the context of NCDs
The Lancet article identifies a set of actions that countries can tailor to address the specific needs of those at risk of NCDs. It provides practical considerations for health authorities across the Region when designing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, with NCDs factored in.
“Evidence across the Region and globally shows that those living with NCDs are particularly vulnerable,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe and senior author of the study. “The full extent of this may be unknown, due to the many cases of NCDs that go undiagnosed,” he added. “The prevention and control of NCDs therefore has a crucial role in the COVID-19 response. If the COVID-19 response is not adapted to encompass prevention and management of NCD risks, we will fail many people at a time when their vulnerability is heightened.”
A streamlined response to COVID-19 in the context of NCDs is important to optimize public health outcomes and reduce the burden of this pandemic on individuals, vulnerable groups, key workers and society.
The key NCD-specific responses to COVID-19 suggested in the article involve:
- engaging NCD health-care staff in planning COVID-19 response strategies;
- using technology to provide online information on exercise and wellness classes and healthy recipes;
- using telemedicine more to maintain continuity of care for people living with NCDs;
- prioritizing community-level services in a safe way to cater for NCD patients’ needs;
- prioritizing NCD patients and health-care staff for COVID-19 testing.
“This article provides important considerations for health authorities across the Region when designing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking NCDs into account,” explained Dr João Breda. “As patients with chronic diseases are at greater risk of COVID-19, there is a real danger of an extra burden being placed on stretched health services across the Region. To address this, NCD staff, stakeholders and patients should be involved in planning COVID-19 response strategies.”