Tackling the rise in non-communicable diseases in South Asia

Today, we are delighted to publish our report “Science to tackle NCDs in South Asia and beyond in the SDG era”, from our workshop with the National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka in January 2020.


The incidence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is increasing around the world. NCDs are estimated to be responsible for 41 million deaths each year, many of which are categorised as ‘premature’.

To help identify ways to address this issue in South Asia, we held a two-day workshop in partnership with the National Academy of Sciences in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The workshop was part of our Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) programme, and brought together 61 researchers, clinicians, policymakers and funders from nine countries across South Asia, as well as from the UK, USA and Australia.

South Asia has a significant burden of infectious diseases, but at the same time there is growing prevalence of NCDs accounting for increasing mortality and morbidity. In Sri Lanka, NCDs are estimated to account for 75% of total deaths.

Many people, especially in rural areas, are unaware of the risks posed by tobacco use, alcohol consumption and a sedentary lifestyle. People often seek help from healthcare facilities only once complications have arisen, meaning the condition has usually become more serious and less easily treated. In Sri Lanka, 19% of the working-age population has at least one NCD, reducing chances of employment and labour earnings compared to the rest of the population.

The workshop allowed participants to identify key challenges and barriers to addressing NCDs in South Asia, including:

  • A lack of NCD data in the region
  • Unknown population-specific risk factors
  • Limited access to healthcare
  • Lack of research incentives and support

Despite the challenges, participants also identified opportunities to accelerate progress in NCD research, implement tools and identify innovations that could support researchers and healthcare workers including:

  • improving the understanding of regional NCD risk factors
  • building research and healthcare capacity
  • developing technical innovations which may offer a low-cost and effective solution

Participants felt that there is huge opportunity to collaborate to tackle these challenges with creative and long-term approaches. Across the diseases that make up the burden of NCDs there are common themes and interventions including: early life targeting, diet, alcohol use, tobacco use and exercise, commercial determinants of health and indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Attendees agreed on the value in working together in the future, and the development of a UK and South Asia Non-Communicable Disease Collaboration & Development Network (UKSANCDN) was proposed. This network would aim to build the evidence base and strengthen NCD research capacity across South Asia by providing training, building a regional network of NCD researchers and research institutions, and ultimately addressing many of the research barriers in the region. 

"It was a pleasure for me to co-chair the steering committee of this workshop that addressed the most important chronic health conditions affecting the people of South Asia - the non-communicable disorders. The National Academy of Sciences of Sri Lanka, being a multidisciplinary academy, is well placed to action the recommendations coming out of the workshop and we hope that we would be able to work with the UK and South Asian collaborative network that was established during this workshop as a long term collaborative partnership that would benefit not only the people of South Asia but also people of South Asian origin living in other parts of the world."

Workshop Co-Chair Professor Vajira Dissanayake FNASSL, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

For more information, download the full report from this page.

Watch our short animation which outlines the discussion and proposed actions to address NCDs in South Asia:

For more information about the workshop, please visit our dedicated policy page.

This workshop is funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund that aims to support cutting-edge research that addresses the challenges faced by developing countries. Visit our GCRF webpage to read more about the fund and further policy workshops.

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