Noncommunicable diseases and their risk factors

Prevention of noncommunicable diseases

Reducing the major risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) – tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet and the harmful use of alcohol – is the focus of WHO’s work to prevent deaths from NCDs.

NCDs – primarily heart and lung diseases, cancers and diabetes – are the world’s largest killers, with an estimated 38 million deaths annually. Of these deaths, 16 million are premature (under 70 years of age). If we reduce the global impact of risk factors, we can go a long way to reducing the number of deaths worldwide.

Prevention of NCDs is a growing issue: the burden of NCDs falls mainly on developing countries, where 82% of premature deaths from these diseases occur. Tackling the risk factors will therefore not only save lives; it will also provide a huge boost for the economic development of countries.

The department is split into four teams:

Tobacco Free Initiative

Conscious of the global tobacco epidemic's massive toll of death, sickness and misery, and mindful of the need to raise the profile of its tobacco control work, WHO in July 1998 established the Tobacco Free Initiative (TFI). TFI focuses international attention, resources and action on the global tobacco epidemic.

The tobacco control team works in three core areas: tobacco control economics, national capacity building, and surveillance and information systems for tobacco control.

The tobacco control economics team aim to demonstrate that tobacco control policies, in particular tobacco taxation, make good economic sense. They work with countries to strengthen their tobacco tax systems, carry out research, develop tools and manuals to support research and policy development, and survey tobacco taxation in countries.

The national capacity building team provide assistance to countries to enhance their ability to resist the epidemic of tobacco and to reduce the demand for tobacco, in line with the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC).

The comprehensive information systems team seeks to improve the availability of surveillance data on tobacco use, exposure and related health outcomes.

In addition to its core area of work, PND is involved in two cross-cutting projects: the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Tobacco Control in Africa project. WHO partners with both projects to focus on reducing the burden of tobacco control in the most at-risk countries worldwide.

Health Promotion

The Health Promotion team promotes action across sectors for health and health equity, the reduction of health risks and the promotion of healthy lifestyles. Oral Health and School Health are two key work programmes of the team. The former aims to integrate oral health into NCD prevention and control, and the latter to intensify action for achieving NCD related health and education outcomes at the population level, in collaboration with key stakeholders within and beyond WHO.

Surveillance and Population-based Prevention

Surveillance and population-based prevention are fundamental to the mission to prevent deaths from NCDs. Population-based prevention focuses on broad policy, program and environmental interventions targeted at the general population more than just the high-risk individuals.

The major areas of focus are very cost-effective policy options contained within the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity & Health and the Global NCD action Plan 2013 - 2020. These include physical activity promotion, salt reduction, WHO recommendations on marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, and fiscal policies for diet amongst others.

Surveillance focuses on coordinating and providing direction and support to strengthen NCD surveillance worldwide, with particular emphasis on low and middle-income countries, and provides global information resources on risk factor burden, trends and distributions.

The team also provides technical and administrative support to the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. The Commission has been tasked by the WHO Director-General with producing a report specifying which approaches and combinations of interventions are likely to be most effective in tackling childhood and adolescent obesity in different contexts around the world.


mHealth uses mobile-based technologies to promote healthy behavioural changes in populations. The joint initiative, between the World Health Organisation and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), provides toolkits and technical advice to countries to roll-out mHealth based NCD prevention programmes. The initiative is steered by two WHO clusters (HIS and NMH) and with a secretariat split between PND and ITU.

The mHealth initiative is aiming to harness mobile phone use as a channel for improving other healthy habits relating to the prevention and reduction of NCDs. The joint initiative helps governments take advantage of this new access channel provided by mobile phones, whilst avoiding the endless cycle of small-scale, low-impact mHealth projects. This is achieved through the creation of global toolkits for each NCD area, containing technical content, design, set-up and management for each programme. Each country then adapts this global version to suit national requirements and context. The initiative currently works in 8 9 countries : Costa Rica (mTobaccoCessation), Senegal (mDiabetes), Zambia (mCervicalCancer), Norway (mCOPD), the UK (mHypertension), the Philippines (mTobaccoCessation), Tunisia (mTobaccoCessation) and India (mTobaccoCessation & mDiabetes) and Egypt (mDiabetes).

Toolkits are available for TB/Tobacco, hypertension, COPD, ageing, cervical cancer, tobacco control and diabetes.

Related links