China faces a health emergency of “hidden epidemics” of non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes that could have far-reaching social, economic and demographic consequences.
Experts have warned of the deadly impact of non-communicable diseases in China on the lifestyle of the Chinese in recent decades, according to a report by the newspaper “The Guardian”.
Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, China witnessed an economic miracle that moved millions of people from the countryside to modern urban cities and lifted them out of poverty to a better standard of living.
And due to the new lifestyle, diseases such as cancer associated with very high rates of smoking, diabetes and heart disease have emerged thanks to an unhealthy diet, lack of exercise and high blood pressure.
For University of California sociology professor Wang Feng, the pace of change in China during the 1980s and 1990s is unlike anything seen anywhere else in history.
“These are hidden epidemics,” he said. “Having an explosion of a new diet coupled with unexpected and unprecedented aging will be one of the biggest challenges for China – not just for individual families, but a political challenge for leadership.”
“This problem can really explode and get out of control. This is not something that will go away.”
More than a third of the world’s 1.1 billion smokers live in China, where about half of the male population is addicted to tobacco.
According to current projections, smoking-related diseases – which include lung cancer, respiratory and heart diseases – will kill one in three young Chinese by 2050.
This grim statistic comes in a country already facing a demographic crisis due to a low birth rate and a rapidly aging population.
The United Nations predicts that the population could drop from its current level of 1.4 billion to about one billion by 2100.
Chinese officials said in July that the population was already beginning to shrink, with birth rates dropping to their lowest levels in decades.
But some forecasts are more stringent, with separate research in the United States and China suggesting the population will nearly halve by the end of the century to around 730 million.
A health problem means an economic problem.
Cancer expert Professor Bernard Stewart, University of New South Wales, Sydney, said the evidence was overwhelming and that China needed to take action to prevent what he called a looming “disaster”.
“There is no sense in which to describe the disaster facing China in terms of deaths from smoking. There is a huge difference in rates between provinces, but highly industrialized cities are disaster areas,” he added.
According to the Global Burden of Disease study prepared by the American Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, the largest cause of death in China is stroke, followed by heart disease, chronic lung disease, and lung cancer, with smoking being a contributing factor in many of these cases.
Cardiovascular diseases are also a major killer in China, especially in the highly industrialized and urbanized north.
A study conducted by the “Lancet” magazine found that people in that region are more likely to have high blood pressure, obesity, and a poor diet that contains few fruits and vegetables, and a high percentage of red meat.
China has more diabetes than any other country – more than 110 million – in what the World Health Organization has described as an “explosive” problem. That number will rise to 150 million people with diabetes by mid-century.
According to the World Health Organization, diabetes and its complications already contribute to nearly one million deaths in China each year, with more than 40 percent of these deaths classified as premature, which is another cause for concern.
And the rise of these chronic diseases leads to a great economic burden on the country, which has the second largest economy in the world after the United States.
In 2021, a group of academics wrote in the medical journal The Lancet: “Chronic conditions are a major contributor to the health burden, inequality of health outcomes and economic burden in China.”
One of the study’s authors, Barbara McPeak, a health economist at the University of Melbourne, says families are facing dire consequences from the problem of “growing hidden epidemics” in China.
She added: “The expenses incurred by people with chronic diseases are significant. You have a health problem means there is an economic problem.”
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