Non-Communicable Diseases: The Canary in the Goldmine

Non-Communicable Diseases: The Canary in the Goldmine

Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, it’s off to work we go…..and then after, a visit to the cardiologist. When we think of chronic or non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as heart attacks, stroke, cancer and obesity (NCD risk factor), we think of office based, sedentary, affluent fast food infused western city dwellers living in Europe and the Americas.

But what about other populations living around the world? Could it be possible that a highly active, jungle dweller living on the other side of the globe in a low-and-middle income Asian country could be at risk of dying prematurely from a heart attack as well?

Sadly, the answer is Yes. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that over 62% of deaths within South East Asia are caused by NCDs. That is more than HIV, TB, Malaria, Maternal and Child, and Injury related deaths combined (38%)!

The number of overweight and obese individuals living in Asian countries such as China (300Million), India (150Million) and Indonesia (41Million) have surpassed classically chunky Americans; USA (160Million), Mexico (52 Million), Brazil (74Million) in the last decade.

The extension of the global epidemic has made its way to one of the most isolated sites in the entire world. The world’s largest copper and gold mine is located at 4,200 meters above sea level (asl) in one of the most remote locations and working environments on the planet – in the mountainous western-central highlands of Papua Province part of the central cordillera that stretches much of the length of the island of New Guinea . The open pit mine (Grasberg) which emloys over 30,000 mostly Indonesian nationals (98%), sits within a few kilometers and underneath Mt. Puncak Jaya (Carstensz Pyramid) and associated montain glaciers. At 4884m asl (16024ft), Puncak Jaya represents the highest location in the Pacific Basin between the Himalayas and the Andes.

In a recent study, a group of experts led by the NCD Asia Pacific Alliance, together with the University of Tokyo and the Ministry of Health of Indonesia, ventured into the mine site within the clouds and discovered that risk factors for NCDs such as raised cholesterol, raised blood pressure, overweight/obesity and raised blood glucose had increased significantly within the last 5 years. In some instances, mineworkers presented cholesterol and obesity levels that were even higher than that of western populations.

NCD Risk Factors in mining workers in Papua Indonesia

NCD risk factor prevalence in mining workers in Papua, Indonesia

The work led by Dr Rodrigo Rodriguez-Fernandez, Executive Director of the NCD Asia Pacific Alliance said, “We were alarmed to find such high rates of cardiovascular and other NCD risk factors within the mining workforce. Asian countries that are now exposed to multinational fast food chains, western junk foods within local supermarkets, multi-million dollar Tobacco media public relations (PR) campaigns, and rapid urbanization leading to less physical activity are all having to face a tsunami of NCD related disease.”

He finalized by adding “One of the major concerns is that unlike western countries, Asian health systems still lack the infrastructure, financing and human resources for health required to deal with such an epidemic.”

The original research study can be found here:


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