What if a highly respected public health authority were to tell you there’s a public health crisis that may become our 21st-century fiscal nightmare? What if he were the public health official most responsible for turning HIV/AIDs from a certain death sentence into a manageable illness in two decades? And what if that expert also warned that this “time bomb” was a scourge that, due to the tragic and cruel torture it inflicts on its victims, also demanded on ethical grounds to be elevated to a human rights issue?
All of these declarations were actually made last week in London at the Alzheimer’s Disease International global meeting. Let’s hope the FDA and their global counterparts were listening – and are still absorbing the messages. And let’s hope those messages traveled from the Excel Center up to the European Medicines Agency located just a few train stops away at Canary Wharf.
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Make no mistake: This was pure inspiration from Dr. Peter Piot, the public-health-official-cum-international-civil-servant. It was a genuine, forthright and – let’s hope – agenda-setting speech that will shape global health priorities for decades to come.
Dr. Piot, who served as executive director of the United Nation’s UNAIDS organization and now serves at Imperial College in London, delivered an impassioned call to action before some 1500 scientists, patients, caregivers, advocate, and health officials who gathered from every corner of the globe. According to Piot, we need a global political movement to fund cures and preventions as the global aging phenomenon will give rise to unprecedented rates of Alzheimer’s. In short, we need to rally against Alzheimer’s exactly as we did with HIV/AIDS in order to make a difference.
Dr. Piot’s position already has some backing. In the last six years, nine countries have created national Alzheimer’s plans. In France, England, Australia, Wales, Scotland, The Netherlands, South Korea, Norway, and most recently the U.S., there are already government-based national plans. Last September, the health ministers and heads of state opened the UN General Assembly by issuing a global call to action against non-communicable diseases (NCDs), adding an entire section on Alzheimer’s alone.
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This May, at the annual World Health Assembly, we can expect equal visibility when all Ministers of Health gather to pass the Japanese-sponsored resolution, “Strengthening NCD Policies to Promote Active Aging.” Japan, home to the world’s oldest population, has come to understand the inadequacy of current tools to handle tomorrow’s crisis.
In the U.S., the government has finally begun to recognize that its heroic spending on basic research on other NCDs like cancer and cardiovascular disease are outpacing spending on Alzheimer’s research to an embarrassing degree. Spending on cancer, for example, is ten times what it is for Alzheimer’s right now, and it’s five times greater for cardiovascular disease and double for diabetes.
Unsurprisingly, in the past decade, Alzheimer’s-related deaths rose 66 percent, while deaths attributed other NCDs fell 20 percent. With the risk of Alzheimer’s at 1 in 8 for people over age 65 and 1 in 2 for the over-85 group, this simply must change.
Already, Alzheimer’s consumes $604 billion annually, a full 1 percent of global GDP. As people live longer than ever before, the explosive trajectory of this spending is clear, and Alzheimer’s really is the “time bomb” among us. Dr. Piot’s speech last week has marked a historic moment. He’s led a rescue team before, and it is time to follow him again.
With a “time bomb” among us, we must work diligently to defuse it.
Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, and Executive Director of The Global Coalition on Aging.