CEO and Country President of Novartis South Africa, Dr Thomas Kowallik, explains why Women’s Month is an ideal time for South African women to take note of their right to good health.

August is Women’s Month in South Africa, commemorating the 1956 women’s march on the Union Buildings. While these brave women helped win one battle for women’s rights, the battle for effective preventative healthcare and wellness for millions of women around the world continues.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including cardiovascular diseases like heart attacks and stroke, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma, and diabetes are among the most significant causes of death among South Africans today, accounting for six of the ten leading underlying causes of natural death. Over half of deaths in South Africa in 2015 were attributed to NCDs – higher than the number of deaths caused by communicable diseases or injuries.

Diabetes moved to the second leading cause of natural death in 2015, and was responsible for 7.1% of deaths among females in South Africa in 2015. NCDs also increase the risk of developing other diseases, resulting in increased medical costs and reduced quality of life.

In addition to the direct impact on women’s health, where NCDs cause men to die, women typically end up burdened with the challenge of raising their families alone. The sad fact is that most of these deaths could be prevented. Prevention starts with awareness, healthy living, early diagnosis and appropriate management.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that NCDs challenge development and human rights for everyone, and are intrinsically linked to poverty. At the UN General Assembly in 2011, and again in 2014, world leaders recognised the threat of NCDs – mainly cardiovascular diseases (CVD), cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes – as major challenges for sustainable development. The WHO notes that 82% of all NCD-related premature deaths are in low- and middle-income countries, and that NCDs cause two in three deaths among women annually.

Countering the myths about NCDs in women

Three enduring myths contribute to the neglect of NCDs in women. Firstly, the persistent view that health-related issues of importance to women are defined through their reproductive capacity. Secondly, the misperception that NCDs, especially cardiovascular diseases, are diseases primarily of men and thirdly, the myth that NCDs in women are an issue only in high-income countries and a result of lifestyle choices.

The Global NCD Alliance reports that NCDs are the cause of death of around 16.8 million women annually. Driving this needless loss of life is persistent exposure to the leading modifiable risk factors for NCDs, often coupled with other health conditions, including those related to reproductive, maternal, child, and adolescent health.

According to the WHO, the number of people with diabetes rose to 422 million in 2014; and in 2012 alone, an estimated 1.5 million deaths were directly caused by diabetes and another 2.2 million deaths were attributable to high blood glucose. Diabetes is also a major cause of blindness, kidney failure, heart attacks, stroke and lower limb amputation. But diabetes can be treated and its consequences avoided or delayed with diet, physical activity, medication and regular screening and treatment for complications.

Reducing NCD risk

An important way to control NCDs is to reduce the risk factors associated with these diseases. Modifiable behaviours, such as tobacco use, physical inactivity, unhealthy diet with excess salt intake, and the harmful use of alcohol, all increase the risk of NCDs, so it is important for women to increase their exercise levels, reduce their alcohol intake, avoid tobacco and eat healthily.

Regular screening and health checks are also important for early diagnosis and management of these chronic conditions. We believe Women’s Month is an appropriate time for women across the country to invest in themselves, starting with a health screening and a resolution to focus more on their health.

Novartis supports their efforts by continually innovating to develop more effective and affordable treatments for the prevention and management of NCDs.

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