UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–The global costs of non-communicable diseases–a projected $46 trillion over the next 20 years–drew major attention at this year’s week-long kickoff to the annual September meeting of the U.N. General Assembly.

Women’s health was another attention-getter, attracting two leading forums here and a high-level conference hosted by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But the link between the two topics–non-communicable disease and women’s health–weren’t often made.

Instead, the women’s health forums were mainly focused on lowering global maternal mortality, No. 5 of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), U.N. targets that countries worldwide have pledged to achieve by 2015.

"It reflects this very conventional, early 20th century notion that the most important thing about a woman is her reproductive life," said Elaine Wolfson, president of the New York-based Global Alliance for Women’s Health, which hosted a side panel on anemia and women. "Maternal health is very, very serious. A woman’s life is threatened during delivery and when she is pregnant. But the same could be true for her later on in life, as well."

Each year, approximately 350,000 globally women die of causes related to childbirth and pregnancy, according to U.N. figures.

More than 35 million people – about 18 million of them women – die every year from non-communicable diseases, including cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases. Nine million of such women are under the age of 60, according to a 2010 World Health Organization report.

The World Economic Forum and the Harvard School of Public Health issued two reports this week on the economic impacts of non-communicable disease in terms of losses in work productivity. They also released "best buy" recommendations, such as further taxation on alcohol and tobacco, to offset this cost.

Neither report isolated the impact of non-communicable diseases on women.

Political Statement Adopted

The General Assembly adopted a political statement on non-communicable diseases affirming countries’ commitments to tackling these diseases.

The statement did isolate women’s health needs in some ways, including:

  • links between maternal and child health and non-communicable disease
  • women’s disproportionate assumption of care-giving burdens
  • women’s lower levels of physical activity and higher rates of obesity.

But such trends weren’t adequately stressed during the conference, says Genevieve Grabman, a gender and health specialist with the Pan-American Health Organization, a Washington-based international health agency affiliated with the World Health Organization.

"Women have particular susceptibilities to uptake of smoking, and the effects of cigarette smoke apparently are worse for women on the cells of the lungs, but also for the lining in the cervix," said Grabman, who hosted a side panel on gender-specific responsive approaches to non-communicable diseases.

Grabman also noted that the General Assembly’s statement failed to note that women may be less likely to receive the regular medical care that can help diagnose and treat non-communicable diseases.

"The access to prevention, care and treatment is significant because women go to the doctor maybe up to two times in their lives," said Grabman. "They show up to have a prenatal visit, in many countries, and then to vaccinate their kids. So both times it is related to the health and well-being of their child, not themselves."

Ensuring women are healthy at all stages in their lives is a key factor to reducing maternal deaths. But of the eight Millennium Development Goals, MDGs No. 4 and No. 5–targeting a two-thirds reduction in deaths of children under the age of 5 and a 75 percent reduction in maternal mortality by 2015, respectively–are the furthest behind.

Global Commitments

Ban’s $41.1 billion Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health, launched last September, aims to speed up progress on reducing maternal, newborn and child deaths. On Tuesday, the Global Strategy was boosted by an additional $9 billion and further political commitments from 33 countries.

One was Ivory Coast, which pledged to begin providing free health services to pregnant women by 2015.

The Central African Republic and Burundi pledged to increase health sector spending to 15 percent of their national budgets from 9.7 percent and 8 percent currently.

Cameroon pledged to re-establish a program to train 200 midwives a year, among other measures. Chad pledged to provide free emergency health care for women and children, as well as to provide free HIV and antiretroviral treatment.

Kyrgyzstan pledged to ensure that 100 percent of the population has access to three modern methods of family planning. Laos committed to training 1,500 new midwives by 2015 and to provide free deliveries in health clinics and hospitals.

Pharmaceuticals giant Merck, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J., made the largest financial commitment–of $500 million–to kickstart a maternal-health initiative.

The London-based White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood hosted a daylong event on Monday that stressed the need for more trained health workers to assist women in pregnancy and childbirth. It made no mention of the role of safe abortion in reducing maternal mortality.

The New York-based global advocacy group Women Deliver planned to launch a new action plan for women’s health but the details weren’t available at press time. (The plan sponsors–the first ladies of Sierra Leone, South Africa and Kenya–were delayed on their way to the Thursday morning breakfast publicity event.)

Women Deliver is part of a civil society task force formed this week to work with U.N. agencies to improve women’s access to health care for non-communicable diseases. "

We know there are solutions," said Jill Sheffield, founder and director of Women Deliver.

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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations headquarters and a freelance writer in New York City.

For more information:

"2011 Commitments to advance the Global Strategy for Women’s & Children’s Health," U.N.:

Women Deliver:

White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood:

UN high-level meeting on NCD prevention and control, WHO: