A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine, and at some point the conversation turned and we began discussing potential global threats to our way of life (not exactly a light topic for a Tuesday). We settled in on three, although I’m sure there are others: global warming, political unrest and infectious disease.
At the time, I remember not having a strong opinion as to which was the greater short- or long-term threat.
It wasn’t until I got home and began doing some research that I realized how vastly different these three were.
Last year, about 56 million people died worldwide. Of that number, about 68% are related to non-communicable disease (mainly cancer, heart attack, diabetes, lung disease and stroke). About 23% are related to infectious disease. So that’s about 13 million people a year dying from mostly preventable and treatable diseases such as HIV, diarrhea, tuberculosis and malaria.
To put that number into perspective, since 2001, 1,742 Americans died in the Afghanistan War and 3,527 troops died in the Iraq War; that’s 5,269 American casualties over 15 years.
While it’s harder to get an accurate global picture of how many lives are lost to political unrest, it appears fractional when compared to heath-related deaths. Still a big number, but not near to the scale of disease.
As for the environment, the UN commissioned a recent study, which estimates that 400,000 lives are lost annually to climate change, the biggest culprit being starvation as water and food supplies dry up.
So at least today, these threats are vastly different in terms of magnitude and scale. Disease is much deadlier then climate change, which seems to edge out political unrest.
Even more amazing, all are small when compared to the big guys – cancer, heart attack and stroke. Those three alone are nearly three times deadlier then all of the threats that my friend and I identified combined.
There are 14 million new cases of cancer diagnosed each year. The disease takes over eight million lives annually, and that number is on the rise. As our population ages, cancer is quickly becoming as common as the common cold.
I’m amazed these days at how often I hear about someone else getting cancer. Based on current life expectancy trends, cancer will affect one out of every three women and one of every two men.
Now I’m a fatalist by nature, and so I’m inclined to jump onto the “we’re all going to die, if we don’t get our act together” bandwagon.
And I’m not here to minimize in any way the devastating impact of infectious disease, global warming and political unrest.
Every life is precious and even one death is one too many.
But it seems logical to me that we direct our energy toward the elephant in the room – and cancer is the elephant.
We have the means to put an end to this disease. We have the tools readily available in our hands, in ways that make this problem solvable.
It’s time we prioritize.
If we can’t heal ourselves, how do we stand a chance at healing our planet.