What are non-communicable diseases?

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), also known as chronic diseases, are not passed from person to person. They are of a long duration, generally slow progression, and occur from a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental and behaviors factors. NCDs kill 41 million people annually, with 85% of these deaths in low- and middle-income countries. And while they are often associated with adulthood, NCDs have a significant impact on children and adolescents across the life-course.

  • The number of overweight or obese children under 5 increased by 28% between 1990 and 2016[1]
  • Cancer is a leading cause of death among children and adolescents globally[2]
  • An estimated 25 million young people, ages 13-15, smoke cigarettes[3]
  • Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14[4]

To reduce the burden of NCDs in children, adolescents, and young people, countries must address prevention, treatment, and management. Critical prevention opportunities include nutritional status before and during pregnancy, good nutrition, a healthy environment, prevention of injuries, freedom from tobacco and secondhand smoke, prevention of toxic stress and promotion of mental health and healthy development. Young people already affected by NCDs require access to quality treatment (i.e., essential medicines, equipment, and services) and the support to manage their diseases into adulthood. Far too many children are dying from treatable NCDs, such as rheumatic heart disease, type 1 diabetes, asthma, and leukemia.

As a matter of equity, health systems need the capacity to ensure prevention; early diagnosis; and prompt, adequate treatment and rehabilitation for young people to improve the health and development of all and maximize opportunities for healthy, productive lives and enjoyment of all human rights.

 NCDs & the Global Goals

In September 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a framework of 17 goals, identified through an expansive global consultation, and applicable to all countries, were adopted by the global community. Goal 3, “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages,” builds on the unfinished agenda of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and adds ambitious new targets. Within Goal 3, four targets are directly related to NCDs:

  • By 2030, reduce by one-third premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment and promote mental health and well-being
  • Strengthen the prevention and treatment of substance abuse, including narcotic drug abuse and harmful use of alcohol
  • By 2020, halve the number of global deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents
  • Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all

Four additional implementation targets are directly connected to NCD prevention and control:

  • Strengthen the implementation of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in all countries, as appropriate
  • Support the research and development of vaccines and medicines for the communicable and non-communicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries, provide access to affordable essential medicines and vaccines [...]
  • Substantially increase health financing and the recruitment, development, training, and retention of the health workforce in developing countries, especially in the least developed countries and small island developing States
  • Strengthen the capacity of all countries, in particular developing countries, for early warning, risk reduction and management of national and global health risk.

With these targets in mind, countries and national stakeholders should support a life-course approach to health, which promotes good health and healthy behaviors, prevention, early detection and diagnosis, management, rehabilitation, treatment, and care.


[1] Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (2017)

[2] WHO Cancer in Children (2018)

[3] The Tobacco Atlas (2018)

[4] WHO Child and adolescent mental health (2018)