Comment: Rebranding disease to launch global change

A little over a year ago, a group of young people – connected by a passion for addressing the leading cause of global deaths – had an idea. Re-brand the way we perceive a group of conditions.

By Alessandro R Demaio, Harvard University

A little over a year ago, a group of young people – connected by a passion for addressing the leading cause of global deaths – had an idea. Re-brand the way we perceive a group of conditions, and the narrative we collectively conjure when hearing their name – Non-Communicable Diseases. Challenge the current, misguided perception that diseases like diabetes, heart disease and cancers are simply the result of poor choices and laziness, and instead use inspiring stories from young health advocates to paint an accurate global and local picture.

Did you know that 80% of NCDs occur in the world’s poorest nations? Acting as a poverty-cycle catalyst. Rather than diseases of rich, old, fat, lazy, American men – that these are in fact diseases largely resulting in and from poverty, social inequality and poor social determinants of health. Rewrite the global narrative on these diseases without the jargon or biomedical focus and connect a new generation of thinkers to rally and overcome the single biggest killer of our time.


But more than this, move beyond blame altogether. Look past the pessimism and negativity. You see, to many, this may seem like one of the largest challenges of our century. A disease burden which threatens to undo the health and development progress of the last one-hundred years, and on a scale that could well cripple not only our national health budget – but the budgets of some of the poorest nations globally.

A New Narrative

But this is not the way these young people see it – and I am one. NCDs present not only a threat, but also enormous opportunities. This is the focus of NCDFREE. A chance for the collective global and local communities to make big, urgent and necessary changes to our lives and lifestyles – but also to our societal actions, our cities and our healthcare systems.

Overcoming this challenge wouldn’t mean that we can no longer live happy lives, or that we need to stop enjoying what we eat. Nor does it mean we need to ban anything that makes us fat or mandate gruelling exercise. Overcoming this challenge would see us rethink and redesign our cities to make exercise a normal part of daily life – safe and routine. It would see us change our food systems to make healthier foods more affordable and “sometimes” foods less ubiquitous.


Early-child education on food and cooking could be essential in overcoming NCDs. Flickr / GraceFamilyWe would mandate food education and cooking in our early-school curricula to ensure no child grows up without the skills and knowledge to make fresh food and navigate the food landscape. We would take back the urban environment and instead of allowing obesogenic food companies to advertise on our buildings, our roads and even our hospitals – we would use this space to promote healthier messages.


We would invest more heavily in primary care, prevention and public health, an investment that could make us back twice what we lay out. We would use technology to our advantage – to connect and empower people who want to take control of their health and provide connections and opportunities to do so via cheap, simple media.


Creating better cities: co-benefits of healthier populations Flickr / AennekenA future where we roll up our sleeves and take real action on NCDs is not a bleak, grey and depressing one. It is a future with many co-benefits apart from longer and healthier lives – stronger economies, happier cities, greater social development and connectedness, and less poverty…



So a year has passed since that idea was floated and thanks to some very creative design-thinkers, it is now a reality. In a few short weeks, 6 inspiring young people from around the world, will take to the stage right here in Melbourne to challenge and rewrite the narrative on NCDs. Set the record straight and provide concrete ideas on a future path for our community – and all communities – to greater health.

On October 5th, at the Melbourne Conference and Entertainment Centre as part of the University of Melbourne’s Festival of IdeasNCDFREE will go live and you can be part of it.

NCDs, including diabetes, heart disease, mental illness and cancers are not diseases of laziness. They’re not simply a result of poor choices. They are a very serious Global Health challenge, but ones which provide us with a unique opportunity to create a better future for all.

We invite you to join us.



For more information, visit the NCDFREE website. Follow NCDFREE on Twitter via @NCDFREE and Sandro via @SandroDemaio. NCDFREE is a not-for-profit initiative and everyone is a volunteer.

Alessandro R Demaio does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

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