World Health Day on Sunday is dedicated this year to high blood pressure (also known as hypertension), a chronic disease that is taking a heavy toll on people’s lives and on healthcare systems.

High blood pressure affects more than one adult in three, and leads to severe health consequences and to more than 9 million deaths from cardiovascular diseases a year globally. Although these numbers are frightening, it seems they have not been enough to trigger the significant changes needed to reverse current trends.

Hypertension is also taking its toll on the global economy. As a major root cause of cardiovascular diseases, this will generate an estimated loss in economic output of US$ 3.5 trillion over the next two decades. Linking hypertension to increasing healthcare costs, loss in productivity, competitiveness and economic growth certainly helps to build the case for action.

However, there are three simple and well-proven measures – salt reduction; physical activity; and detecting and treating high blood pressure – for an effective, cheap and universal solution.

So, to me, the most striking fact is not that hypertension kills and has huge economic consequences for health systems and the global economy but that it is easily preventable and, when not preventable, easily detectable and treatable. This makes it a compelling priority.

So, what do we need to change? On World Health Day 2013 we need to make it clear that hypertension is not a health issue. Health experts have done their job to help understand the causative mechanisms of hypertension and its complications, to define healthy blood pressure and confirm the efficiency of preventive measures. However, hypertension needs to be taken out of the hands of the health sector and solutions found outside healthcare.

To prevent the preventable, everyone can be a doctor and World Health Day 2013 should serve as an invitation to a broader coalition than the usual healthcare actors. You don’t need to be a doctor or a nurse to detect high blood pressure, and this does not require health infrastructure. In Barbados, for example, the Ministry of Health is offering blood pressure checks in barber shops, which adult males visit much more often than their doctor’s surgery.

Treatment of high blood pressure is simple and safe, and costs very little a month. Cost and availability of medicine, therefore, is not the obstacle; compliance is, and information and telecommunication technologies can do much to remedy this. Cutting down on salt requires the engagement of Industry, reformulation of products, clear labelling on salt content, and better education. Physical activity does not need a prescription, but schools, urban planners and designers, employers; city mayors and community leaders can do much to promote and enable physical activity.

Hypertension provides a perfect illustration of the three fundamental pillars for sustainable and universal access to health: emphasize the importance of prevention and primary care (many actors need to be invited to be part of the solution); foster the era of data-based decisions in health and care, at individual and population levels (knowing your blood pressure and measuring your physical activity); and reinvent and innovate in the delivery of health services (using technology to get closer to the patient).

In a series of blog posts curated by the World Economic Forum’s Health Team, a number of leading voices will present their perspectives on health and healthcare in the run-up to World Health Day on 7 April. 

Author: Olivier Raynaud is Senior Director and Head of Healthcare Initiatives at the World Economic Forum

Image: A woman has her blood pressure taken in Amman REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed