Reversible Environmental Factors and the Global Burden of Disease

The Global Burden of Disease study is an extraordinary collaborative effort to document the health of the human race. It produces a series of weighty publications every four years, packed with interesting detail. The most recent set of papers have been published and the first deals with life years lost.[1] The study documents the recent epidemiological transition in which non-infectious diseases have taken over from infectious diseases as the main cause of life-years lost across the world. Childhood malnutrition is no longer enemy number one, relegated to fourth place globally, but it retains the number one slot in sub-Saharan Africa. High blood pressure, smoking and obesity now occupy the first three slots globally. CLAHRC Africa includes a programme of research on salt. Salt is now enemy number two, after smoking, in unhealthy behaviours. Research into methods to reduce salt intake is a priority, even as the debate continues into whether sodium levels can fall too low – some data suggest a J-shaped distribution of risk with rising salt intake. Unsafe sex is the major risk factor in East, and Southern Africa, while South Africa is the country with the world’s highest burden of disease associated with reversible environmental factors. Areca nut (another interest of CLAHRC Africa) does not make it onto the list. Along with smokeless tobacco, the CLAHRC WM Director thinks this risk should be considered for inclusion in further versions. Another criticism is double counting – high sodium intake and high systolic blood pressure both appear on the list, yet the former is a prominent cause of the latter. To be fair, the authors do recognise this issue. In a future blog we will report on a further analysis of the remarkable GBD dataset to consider not just the deaths, but the total burden of disease (for instance in Disability Adjusted Life Years [DALYs]).

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

References:

  1. GBD 2013 Risk Factor Collaborators. Global, regional, and national comparative risk assessment of 79 behavioural, environmental and occupational, and metabolic risks or clusters of risks in 188 countries, 1990–2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013. Lancet. 2015; 386: 2287-323.
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