Global child obesity epidemic a huge risk for cancer

04 February 2015 | Cancer prevention, Policy

Sania NishtarDr Sania Nishtar is Co-chair of the World Health Organization's high-level Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. She is also President of health think tank, Heartfile, and was Pakistan’s Minister for Education & Training; Science & Technology; Information Technology & Telecom; and Health.

Today is World Cancer Day; a good moment to bring global attention to the strong evidence that adults who are overweight or obese are at risk of developing 10 cancers - as well as other noncommunicable diseases such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The global prevalence of adult obesity is staggering, and we are now also faced with the growing epidemic of obesity and overweight among our children.

The number of overweight and obese children is predicted to increase from more than 42 million in 2013 to 70 million by 2025. Without a concerted and sustained effort, the impact of such an epidemic will result in an increased economic and social burden on all populations.

WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity

In an effort to better inform a comprehensive response to childhood obesity, the World Health Organization’s Director-General established a high-level Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, which comprises 15 accomplished and eminent individuals from a variety of relevant backgrounds. The aim of the Commission is to raise awareness of the importance of addressing this issue, why it must be a global priority, and build momentum for evidence-based solutions to defeating the epidemic of childhood obesity.

A multi-sectoral approach needed to tackle obesity

As co-chair of this Commission, I know that no single discipline can truly tackle childhood obesity. That is why we have brought together social scientists, public health specialists, clinical scientists and economists to come up with a coherent plan for action, which is likely to be most effective to prevent childhood obesity in different contexts and societies. Children who are overweight or obese are at greater risk of a range of health problems, including asthma, high blood pressure, musculo-skeletal disorders, fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, as well as obstructive sleep apnoea. In addition to these health risks, obesity negatively impacts on the ability of children to participate in educational and recreational activities, and imposes a range of economic burdens at familial and societal levels. In later life, they are at greater risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers, obstructive respiratory disease, mental, emotional and social health problems and reproductive disorders.

Overweight children increasing worldwide: urgent action needed

Tackling childhood obesity requires urgent action on multiple fronts. This includes considering the health of the mother, the unborn baby, and the same child as it passes from infanthood to childhood and adolescence. Primary prevention measures are key parts of this, as dietary and physical activity habits develop early in life and significantly influence behaviour as adults. Children are not free agents and cannot choose the foods they eat and the opportunities they have for physical activity. Those who care for them need to make these healthy choices available to them and support and encourage them to develop healthy lifestyle behaviours. The prevalence of childhood overweight is increasing worldwide, but especially in Africa and Asia. Without action now millions of children will be deprived of the right to a healthy, active childhood and will instead needlessly face the burden of chronic diseases and cancers.

To find out more about World Cancer Research Fund International's activities for World Cancer Day 2015, please visit our website or follow us on Twitter: Watch our new, 1 minute video featuring our 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

Dr Sania Nishtar | 04 February 2015

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