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June 19, 2014

My Name is Rennie and I have an NCD

Today, we joined hundreds of other participants at the United Nations observing and participating in the UN Civil Society Informal Interactive Hearing on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), tasked with discussing the achievements and gaps in the international approach to NCDs. NCDs like cancer, asthma and COPD will be the health epidemic that defines the 21st century – affecting billions of people – everyday people like Rennie Sloan, who trells her story here. You can watch the hearings live at webtv.un.org

My teacher carried me in her arms to the office and a boy named Brent – on whom I had a crush — re-enacted the faint all year, grabbing his chest and crumpling to the floor.When I was in 5th grade, I woke up one day on the floor of my math class and saw my teacher and classmates hovering over me with looks of concern on their faces. My strong asthma medication had caused me to faint.

For me, it was never a laughing matter. My asthma had started when I was an infant. The frequency and severity of the attacks were likely exacerbated by my exposure to secondhand smoke, which causes irreversible lung damage. My earliest memories are of the struggle to breathe and the terror that comes when an asthma attack crushes my bronchial tubes.

Throughout my childhood, I spent most days either dealing with asthma or the fear I would have an attack as I walked to school, played with friends, or battled winter colds and frequent respiratory infections. Doctors, hospitals, breathing machines and medicines that made my heart race were part of life.

As an adult, I remember pleading with the CEO of an ad agency where I worked to ban cigarette smoke in the office, trying to convince him it could make me sick.

Though I was unsuccessful with him, I have – overall – been very lucky. Living in the United States, I’ve had access to top-notch health care and medicines to treat lung problems. And many indoor smoke-free laws exist now.

But, sadly, chronic respiratory diseases take an enormous toll globally, particularly on children. Acute respiratory infections (ARIs) are the leading global killer of children under five. It’s heartbreaking to think about children in low-resource regions living with the added fear of not being able to take a normal breath and not having sufficient access to prevention, treatment, and laws to help them.

In addition to facing exposure to tobacco smoke at home or in public places, children globally often face suffocating pollution in places like China, or toxic smoke from indoor cook stoves in many African countries. Now tobacco giants who spend billions in marketing are setting their sights on vulnerable developing regions, where the enforcement of smoke-free laws often falls short.

In the past decade, I’ve been fortunate to work in global health to elevate resources and improve policies and resources for people with asthma.

The chronic respiratory disease is one of the four main non-communicable diseases – known as NCDs. The other three are cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

But far too many people, even in public health and government, aren’t familiar with the terminology, much less the impact, of NCDs. Although they cause 65% of global deaths, and are projected to cost $47 trillion of lost productivity in the next two decades, their global threat remains underreported.

NCD disease groups have wisely joined together to better advocate for prevention and control. But even as the United Nations, World Health Organization, non-governmental organizations and the NCD Alliance work hard to topple these diseases, much of the public, global donors, academic institutions, governments, and the news media still don’t know what NCDs are or what their impact is.

That’s unacceptable, given that almost everyone either has at least one of these diseases or knows people who do. To make progress against what are the world’s deadliest diseases, we need to build a movement to demand more resources and policy changes to define and address them.

I hope the billions of people affected will make it personal and demand more action from governments and developmental organizations. Put a name and face on NCDs so they no longer cause unnecessary deaths and wreak havoc on children, families, and communities.

I’ll start. My name is Rennie and I have an NCD.

Rennie Sloan is a communications expert based in Atlanta. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and MSNBC.com, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter @RennieSloan

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