For many decades it was an accepted truth that Nepal’s main public health threat was from infectious diseases, and the most cost-effective way to address that was through prevention. In other words, the first line of defence against communicable diseases was communication.

Whether it was gastric infections caused by contaminated water, respiratory ailments due to cold and pollution, or diseases spread by insect vectors like malaria – the goal was to spread public awareness about prevention. Radio jingles about oral rehydration salts or acute respiratory infections in children indirectly helped save millions of lives over the years.

Many of these challenges remain. Despite dramatic progress, many Nepalis still lack safe drinking water – not just in the roadless hinterland but right here in the heart of the capital. There are frequent cholera epidemics. Children’s lungs are still affected by indoor smoke from wood fires. Malaria is on the comeback due to resistance and there is an annual epidemic of dengue and encephalitis.

Yet, compounding these endemic infections, there is now an increasing burden of non-communicable diseases and injuries (NCDI). New lifestyle-related cardio-vascular afflictions, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) caused by pollution, or mental health disorders have added to the burden of disease and disability. South Asians are already genetically susceptible to diabetes, and now there are new risk factors due to migration to urban centres. While the world average for prevalence of both types of diabetes is 8%, more than 14% of people in urban centres like Dharan have diabetes – even though the prevalence for rural Taplejung, for instance, is only 1%.

A study by The Nepal NCDI Poverty Commission released this week shows that the burden of NCDIs has doubled in the last 25 years. More than half of all death and disability today are caused by NCDIs, with nearly 15% caused by injuries in conflict, natural disasters or highway accidents.

Being afflicted with an NCDI (or chronic disease) is more fatal in Nepal than in developed countries because of affordability and restricted accessibility to adequate medical treatment. The poor are disproportionately vulnerable. The NCDI burden in Nepal is also different than in other parts of the world – there is a higher incidence of ischemic cardiac conditions, asthma, neurological disorders, cancers caused by untreated infections and injuries, for instance.

For us, the report’s main finding, and most damning inference, is about how treatment of NCDIs is driving Nepalis into indebetedness and penury. The survey shows that half of all medical expenditure of families is out-of-pocket, and 60% of that is for treatment of NCDIs. This is because the government spends only 11% of its budget on health care, and only 6.4% of that is for treatment of non-communicable diseases.

Despite the proven link between chronic ailments and poverty, donors still allocate only 1% of their development assistance for NCDIs.

Treatment of injuries, gastro-intestinal infections, heart diseases, cancers, kidney and liver diseases are the most impoverishing NCDs for households. The report’s main conclusions are corroborated by our field report from Achham and Kavre this week  about how the lack of even basic surgical facilities in district hospitals and health posts is forcing Nepalis to undertake expensive and extended trips to private hospitals in the cities.

Another recent study of 39 government hospitals commissioned by the Nick Simons Institute (NSI) showed a huge unmet need in remote areas for basic surgery like caesarians, orthopaedics, and abdominal operations. Nepal’s surgery rate is well below the Lancet Commission’s target of 5,000 operations per 100,000 population. Only one-third of patients currently can reach an orthopedic surgeon within two hours of travel.

The public-private partnership models that NSI and Possible are carrying out in remote government hospitals are ways to plug this gap: ensuring minimum staffing of a MDGP physician, anaesthesia assistant, staff nurse and biomedical technician in each hospital can offer basic treatment and surgery in remote areas, reduce the need for referrals, and save household income. At present Nepal’s density of hospitals with such staffing and equipment is at 0.4 per 100,000 population, as against the Lancet Commission’s recommendation of 20/100,000.

The Nepal NCDI Poverty Commission report suggests additional measures: national health care delivery should respond to the increasing burden of NCDIs by decentralising.

Impoverishment of households due to the high cost of treatment should be addressed through disease-specific policies for high-cost conditions and expansion of insurance coverage.

It is often said that health is wealth, but in Nepal wealth is health. That can only be changed by making treatment of chronic conditions and injuries accessible, affordable, inclusive and equitable.

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