The Ebola death count has now topped 4000, though deaths from the virus are still mostly confined to the three West African nations of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Fear of this virus is so rampant, however, that the relatively few cases of it in the U.S., Spain and Nigeria are grabbing huge media and public attention.
As serious, deliberate and critical are the precautions that must be taken to prevent the further spread of this deadly infectious disease, what’s notable is that such public health threats as Ebola or Bird Flu attract most of the public’s attention, government funding and global political commitments – while the severe and ongoing health crisis of Alzheimer’s (and other illnesses) gets relatively little.
Think of this: Alzheimer’s affects tens of millions of people across the globe. It costs billions to treat. Alzheimer’s is already on its way to becoming much like that mother of all pandemics, the Bubonic Plague. The Black Death swept through Europe in the 14th century and killed some 25 million people, or 30 percent to 60 percent of the European population.
Ebola is frightening because it spreads through physical contact, as do other communicable diseases. We worry about its impact in and from places where there’s limited and ineffective health care, including the ability to contain its rapid and global travel. We imagine the worst, including how it can spiral out of control and decimate whole populations. We know that quick and bold action is needed because this communicable disease moves rapidly and tortuously through the human body.
Yet here’s something to remember: Our global public health complex was built in the previous century. As our global population ages, the health demands and needs of this population also changes – and so must our system. Right now, unfortunately, the health crises we increasingly call Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) are competing for attention, money and commitment with communicable diseases that get far more public attention and funding.
Here’s why this is critical: Over 40 million people globally had Alzheimer’s in 2013. By 2030, trusted projections show that 75.6 million people will be afflicted with the disease, since it directly correlates with age. There is no other disease – communicable or non-communicable – that comes close as a consequence of the near-perfect correlation of Alzheimer’s to age, where risk elevates to about 1 in 2 over age 85. There are 7.7 million new cases each year; there’s a new case somewhere in the world every four seconds.
In terms of cost, Alzheimer’s outstrips all else, partly because of the length of the disease and its devastation on families, friends and communities who are forced to provide care while a cure is lacking. At $1.2 trillion in the U.S. alone by 2050, this cost explodes to multiple trillions when you begin to factor in longevity achievements in countries that range from China to India to Brazil.
There’s plenty of worry about it, too. A recent survey by Bank of America Merrill Lynch and AgeWave found that Alzheimer’s is feared more than cancer, stroke, heart disease, diabetes and arthritis combined.
Here’s another compelling point: While we generally associate health challenges in poor and middle income countries with such “traditional” diseases as TB, malaria and AIDs – there is an overwhelming prevalence of Alzheimer’s in these countries, as they, too, experience levels of longevity previously enjoyed in rich western democracies.
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