× Cancer & Chronic Diseases
Cancer & Chronic Diseases
COPE Community Health Representative Lenora Shirley checks on 63-year-old diabetes patient Judy Singer at Singer's home near Ganado, Arizona.
Photo: Rebecca E. Rollins / Partners In Health

Diseases more commonly associated with wealthy countries, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, are on the rise in poor countries. A World Health Organization report states that 28 million of the 38 million deaths from non-communicable diseases (NCDs), as these types of illnesses are known, occurred in low- and middle-income countries in 2012.

It’s easy to see how this happens. An undernourished person eating cheap processed foods is more likely to develop diabetes. The lack of hospitals and clinics means someone’s hypertension could go undiagnosed for years. People with HIV are at much greater risk of developing Kaposi sarcoma because their weak immune systems are susceptible to infections that can cause cancer.

Identifying and treating NCDs requires a dedicated global effort. If nothing changes, it’s estimated that by 2025, NCDs will cost poor countries $7 trillion in lost earnings of people who suffer these diseases, keeping millions of people trapped in poverty.

PIH's Response

Partners In Health works to ensure that poor people living with NCDs receive health care. We help governments incorporate NCD programs into their public health systems.

Community health workers are at the forefront of our work. We train them to screen patients for NCDs and refer them to clinics for treatment. Because many NCDs are chronic, community health workers also make sure patients keep up with long-term treatment and stay healthy.

We have developed these programs across the globe, from rural villages in Lesotho to poor urban neighborhoods in Russia by combining screening and care for NCDs with our work in infectious diseases. A patient in Malawi receiving HIV treatment, for example, will also be checked for diseases such as diabetes or hypertension. Someone ill with tuberculosis in Russia might also be treated for malnutrition while getting daily medication and care.

Cancer plagues people in all the countries we work, but we provide the most extensive care in Rwanda and Haiti. We opened the Butaro Cancer Center of Excellence in 2012, where patients receive an array of services, including chemotherapy and surgery.

At University Hospital in Mirebalais, Haiti, we’re training a troop of doctors, nurses, and medical residents to tend to patients with cancer. They perform CT scans and take biopsies of tumorous tissue, which are sent to Boston for examination.

Many of our patients suffer from diabetes and hypertension in places where healthy food is limited or unavailable, such as the Navajo Nation and Chiapas, Mexico. Distant communities within these regions don’t have grocery stores that stock meat and other forms of protein or fresh fruits and vegetables. Our community health workers ensure people are connected to fresh food sources when possible.

As we begin our partnerships with the governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone, we are incorporating NCD programs into planning from the start. Our program to screen and treat Ebola survivors for long-term side effects, such as eye complications, is already off the ground.

Much of our NCD work involves research and advocacy. We document the lessons we learn in publications, such as The PIH Guide to Chronic Care Integration for Endemic Non-Communicable Diseases. Through these documents and other projects, such as NCD Synergies, a policy and advocacy organization, we reach beyond the 10 countries where we work, sharing knowledge with practitioners in poor communities around the world.