Imagine living in a time when the leading cause of death was diseases like smallpox, tuberculosis, or measles. In what we now refer to as the era of infectious diseases, these were the health scourges that claimed lives en masse. Public health efforts during this time were primarily focused on these infectious diseases, leading to the development of vaccines and antibiotics that significantly reduced their impact. However, as we've progressed and evolved, so have the types of diseases that are prevalent in society.
The Era of Infectious Diseases
Infectious diseases are illnesses caused by microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. These diseases are contagious and can spread from one individual to another through direct or indirect contact. Examples of infectious diseases include tuberculosis, malaria, influenza, and HIV/AIDS.
In the past, infectious diseases had a substantial impact on healthcare systems. Outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and polio led to widespread illness and death, often overwhelming healthcare resources. Many infectious diseases were tricky to treat, and there were limited prevention and control options. Hence, infectious diseases became a major public health concern and a leading cause of mortality and morbidity worldwide.
The Landscape Shifts: Rise of Non-Communicable Diseases
Healthcare systems adapted to the challenges posed by infectious diseases, developing strategies for disease surveillance, outbreak investigation, and infection control. Despite these efforts, infectious diseases continue to pose a threat to public health. Outbreaks of diseases such as Ebola, Cholera, and COVID-19 have demonstrated the ongoing need for effective prevention and control measures. However, the healthcare landscape has shifted recently, with a rise in non-communicable diseases (NCDs) changing the focus of healthcare. This shift is documented in the WHO Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs 2013–2020 to 2030 extended by the World Health Assembly.
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are chronic diseases not caused by infectious agents like bacteria or viruses and thus are not contagious. They are often chronic diseases that develop slowly over time and last for long periods of time, sometimes even a lifetime. Examples of NCDs include heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory diseases.
Today, NCDs have become the leading cause of death globally, accounting for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, with Cancer being the third leading cause of death in Kenya. This rise in NCDs has been fueled by factors such as an ageing population, urbanization, and lifestyle changes such as unhealthy diets, a lack of physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol use. The transition from infectious diseases to NCDs represents a significant shift in global health trends and poses new challenges to healthcare systems.
While infectious diseases can often be treated with antibiotics or antiviral drugs, NCDs require a more comprehensive multidisciplinary approach focusing on prevention, early detection, and management. This is where technology plays a crucial role in strengthening health systems and improving outcomes for patients with NCDs. In the upcoming article, we'll delve deeper into the strategies and technologies that are reshaping the way we address these chronic conditions.