To celebrate the anniversary of its founding, every year on World Health Day, the World Health Organization (WHO) draws attention to a specific public health issue.
This year’s theme, “Control Your Blood Pressure,” reflects the increasing burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like heart disease and stroke and follows up on a 2011 UN commitment to tackle them.
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for NCDs and affects more than one in three adults over the age of 25 – in total, an estimated 1 billion people around the world, according to WHO. Because it can be symptomless and therefore, go undiagnosed, public health experts call high blood pressure the “silent killer.”
But global concern with high blood pressure is not new – in fact, WHO’s 1978 World Health Day campaign similarly sought to raise awareness about the condition. That year’s campaign was called, “Down with High Blood Pressure.”
This year’s theme may be the same as that of 1978, but the statistics surrounding high blood pressure have changed:*
4.3 billion (1978)
7.1 billion (2013)
People with high blood pressure
600 million (1980)
1 billion (2008)
Prevalence of obesity (men)
Prevalence of obesity (women)
According to WHO, complications from high blood pressure now result in more than nine million deaths per year. The greatest prevalence of high blood pressure is in Africa, where it affects 46 percent of the continent’s population.
“Our aim today is to make people aware of the need to know their blood pressure, to take high blood pressure seriously, and then to take control,” said Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, in a written statement about World Health Day. To build on WHO’s campaign, many countries are offering health services this weekend – from CPR training in New Delhi to fat analysis and other free health screenings in Los Angeles.
Sixty-five years ago today, WHO was established within the United Nations to direct and coordinate international public health work.
“Health,” WHO stated in the preamble to its founding constitution, “is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
But the fact that high blood pressure has not become absent – and instead, has become more present – is certainly taking its toll on global public health.
Last year, upon her reappointment to a second term as head of WHO, Chan spoke of the perseverance required of the global health community in order to fully address health problems. “If we let down our guard, slacken our efforts, problems that are so close to being brought under control will come roaring back,” Chan said. “The history of public health has taught us this, time and time again.”
Bringing attention back to high blood pressure on World Health Day is a move to ensure that this won’t happen for the condition and related non-communicable diseases. And on WHO’s website, even Chan herself is pictured getting her blood pressure checked.
* World population data from the US Census Bureau; life expectancy data from the World Bank via Google Public Data; all other data from WHO.