The health systems in many low- and middle-income countries are no longer up to snuff. They were designed for a different period, one in which infectious diseases and epidemics were the most pressing healthcare challenges. These health systems now need to transition from addressing mainly short-term episodes of infectious disease to tackling noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). This is a significant evolution: NCDs are often of longer duration, slow progression, and require the treatment of risk factors in addition to the diseases themselves.

The four leading global noncommunicable diseases responsible for the most deaths and illnesses are cardiovascular diseases (such as heart disease and stroke), diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma). Once considered diseases of affluence, 2008 saw nearly 80 percent of all deaths from noncommunicable disease occurring in low- and middle-income countries—a 40 percent jump since 1990. And in sub-Saharan Africa, NCDs are projected to account for a quarter of all deaths this year.

Yes, life expectancy is rising, but these diseases do not affect the elderly alone: a quarter of all noncommunicable disease-related deaths are among people below the age of 60. And they’re not cheap: the projected economic burden stands at a cumulative output loss of $47 trillion between 2010 and 2030. If left unaddressed, this could threaten the development of many low- and middle-income countries.

Middle-income countries, including African nations like Nigeria, will assume a progressively larger burden of the economic fallout as their economies and populations grow. In 2005, Nigeria lost around $400 million to premature deaths due to heart diseases, stroke, and diabetes; projections put that number at $8 billion by 2015. Skyrocketing health system costs are a double-edged drag on the economy because of both the cost of treatment (which is higher with late diagnoses) and loss of labor to deaths and persistent illness).

While many NCDs can be controlled, treatment may last for years, decades, or even a person’s lifetime. Thankfully, the human and economic burdens of noncommunicable diseases can both be contained by increasing resources for prevention, screening, early treatment, and regular monitoring. Prevention is particularly important both at the individual level and the broader public level—health ministries and care facilities should adopt policies to promote physical activity and reduce tobacco and alcohol consumption.

Some organizations are ahead of the game: The Society for Family Health in Nigeria has set up a social franchise in a network of three health facilities in Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja. They provide the franchise facilities with training and equipment for cervical cancer screening, alongside cryotherapy machines for treatment of early stages of the cancer. Likewise, GE Healthcare and partners have commissioned three diagnostic imaging centres (two in Lagos and one in Calabar) to provide basic ultrasound scans for pregnant women, as well as early diagnosis of heart disease, stroke, and complications of diabetes.

This model of public-private integration can be helpful for the diagnosis and treatment of NCDs throughout the sub-Saharan region. Health improvements can piggyback on existing investments in primary healthcare and the infrastructure advances in maternal and child health. But given the peculiarities of noncommunicable diseases, they will also require additional investments in diagnostics and innovations in patient monitoring, including strategies for self-monitoring and reporting of blood pressure and glucose readings through mobile devices.

Combatting the rise of noncommunicable disease in Africa will require large-scale investments in prevention and diagnostics and will need to decisively distinguish preventative strategies from those currently being used to address infectious disease. Many African markets are embracing a newfound economic confidence, but it’s time to match that confidence by investing in the collective health of a growing regional workforce. The return on that investment is invaluable.

Learn more about GE’s efforts in Africa


This article was produced on behalf of GE by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.