Speech by UNRWA Deputy Commissioner-General Margot Ellis to mark the launch of UNRWA’s diabetes awareness campaign on World Health Day

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King Hussein Cultural Center, Amman

Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Thank you all for joining us this evening to commemorate World Health Day, which marks the launch of our regional diabetes awareness campaign. On behalf of UNRWA and our Health team, I would like to also thank our implementing partners present here today from across the region and from the Jordanian Ministry of Health.

This joint effort serves as an excellent example of how relief and development agencies can work together effectively to combat the global surge of non-communicable diseases, or NCDs. All public sectors have a stake in controlling NCD and must come together to reduce risks and promote prevention.

To share with you some statistics published by the World Health Organization, NCDs kill 36 million people a year - 29 million of these deaths occur in low to middle income countries. Cardiovascular diseases are the most lethal, followed by cancer, respiratory diseases and diabetes.

Of concern to UNRWA, in the Palestine refugee communities that we serve, we are treating about 220,000 Palestine refugees for diabetes, hypertension or both. The number of our patients has almost doubled in the last 10 years. Non-communicable diseases are now among the primary threats to the health of Palestine refugees, accounting for over 70 per cent of all deaths. A recent clinical audit of our program showed that Palestine refugees contract these diseases earlier than in the West- a fact consistent with WHO findings for low-income economies.

Needless to say, the emotional and financial burden of these diseases on low-income families is devastating. The costs for treatments can push families into poverty. The cost to UNRWA is also high with about 41% of our medicines budget covering treatment of diabetes and hypertension. To address this exponential growth in disease and associated costs, UNRWA is reforming its services to more effectively respond to new health needs.

Treating over 220,000 people with diabetes or hypertension is core to UNRWA’s primary health care services delivered in 139 health centers across the Levant. NCD care has been the main thrust of UNRWA’s Family Health Team reform strategy: to deliver comprehensive and continuous care to Palestine refugees. UNRWA provides screening, management, referrals and subsidies for hospitalization costs for diabetes and hypertension care.

UNRWA has been reorganizing its health workforce and its heath-center service points to integrate the family health team approach. Family health teams are made up of doctors, nurses and clerks, promising continuity of comprehensive treatment to families and individuals most in need. This approach is supported by a more efficient and reliable electronic medical records and appointment system which facilitates consistent monitoring of NCD patients, referrals and NCD disease trends.

Despite UNRWA’s substantive reform, there is still much to do to address the magnitude of the NCD burden. The scale of resources needed to deliver NCD treatment services requires increased and continuous funding.

Because NCDs are largely rooted in preventable lifestyle choices, there is also a clear need for the prevention and early detection of NCDs to reduce costs in the long-term. Relief and development agencies have a vital role to play in creating an integrated multi-sector approach and this is precisely why UNRWA has actively sought partners to participate in the diabetes awareness campaign: Life is Sweeter with Less Sugar.

Working with 16 partners across the region, our campaign provides patients and their families’ with practical medical and nutritional counseling, including healthy cooking and exercise routines. These activities will take place alongside outreach screening for the early detection of diabetes and hypertension.

The play you are about to watch is an example of the types of tools we are using to communicate awareness and prevention throughout the region. We believe that creativity, humor, and celebration will put knowledge into practice and result in positive change and healthier communities.

Before starting the performance, again, I want to thank you for joining us today as we launch this important campaign. UNRWA is very grateful to the World Diabetes Foundation who has generously funded the campaign and program clinical audits. I hope that with the launch, we can continue to build on the momentum and further develop close relationships to improve prevention, early detection of NCD and overall health of the Palestine refugees. I look forward to seeing you and more partners at the next World Health Day event in 2014.