Helping the Young to Live Healthier


Words by Isabel O’Brien

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are often preventable, and our susceptibility can be tied to behaviours established in childhood and adolescence. We consider how the pharmaceutical industry can play a more prominent role in educating young people, advocating and advancing a policy of prevention over treatment in later life.


Charities for children and young people are consistently one the leading benefactors of donations each year as modern society is passionate about safeguarding the welfare of world’s youngest inhabitants. It is hard to fathom that less than 200 years ago children could be found in the dark gulf of a coal mine, facing risk of death as well as health issues such as fatal respiratory disease. But while nowadays we strive to protect young people from direct sources of harm, there are still staggering gaps in how we educate and support them to lead healthy, well-balanced lives that could mitigate the onset of preventable non-communicable diseases (NCDs).


“Today, NCDs have become the number one cause of death worldwide, killing more than 41 million people each year,” says Helen Seibel, Global Community Investment and Philanthropy Lead, AstraZeneca. “Research shows that more than 70% of premature deaths from the most common NCDs – like diabetes, heart and respiratory disease, and cancer – are tied to behaviours that first appear in adolescence.” With their financial muscle and expertise, the pharmaceutical industry has the power to educate young people about the potential outcomes of behaviours established in teen-hood.


Currently, there are 40 million children under the age of five who are overweight, with the number of children aged 5–19-years-old facing challenges with high weight having nearly doubled in the past 15 years. “There is no doubt that childhood obesity is a public health crisis that requires immediate attention,” says Lars Fruergaard Jørgensen, President and CEO, Novo Nordisk. “Childhood obesity is more than an individual choice; this is everybody’s business.”


Childhood obesity is more than an individual choice; this is everybody’s business

The tobacco epidemic is similarly a mounting public health threat, resulting in the deaths of more than 8 million people a year globally, with the majority of those deaths a result of direct tobacco use. “If we can educate young people about the risks of tobacco use, we can help them make an informed choice about tobacco, hopefully influencing the adoption of healthier choices and good behaviours,” says Seibel.


The data is glaring and readily available, and the industry is aware of its responsibility to help and create solutions. A report by Deloitte has predicted that by 2040, healthcare will increasingly revolve around preventing some diseases – and curing others. If pharma is to make this future a reality, work will need to be done to reach the youth of the world and influence more positive behaviours.


The good news is that seeds are already being sown, with companies like Novo Nordisk and AstraZeneca both entering collaborations with UNICEF to help children make informed choices to benefit their long-term health.


“Partnering with companies like Novo Nordisk on prevention programmes aim to help the next generation of children thrive and reach their full potential,” says Karen Hækkerup, Executive Director, UNICEF Denmark, referencing their collaborative mission with Novo Nordisk to end childhood obesity.


Prevention programmes aim to help the next generation of children thrive and reach their full potential

Talking of AstraZeneca’s Young Health Programme, Seibel adds: “We’ve reached more than 5 million young people across 6 continents with health education and disease prevention programming. This includes training more than 50,000 young people to be peer educators.”


Programmes like these are already boasting impressive outcome conversions, begging the question: what potential impact could be made if more pharma companies invested in youth education projects? As Seibel highlights: “Our final external evaluation showed significant contributions in changing young people’s knowledge, attitude, and behaviours towards NCDs and risk behaviours.”


While improved outcomes for children and young people must persist as pharma’s focus, demonstrating the industry’s desire to help prevent disease and not just cure it, will be a valuable rhetoric in building up pharma’s reputation, which is arguably improving in the wake of their visible and impassioned mission to prevent COVID-19.


“When you work in pharma, you know that they apply the same passion and capability that you saw for COVID-19 research to all the unmet medical needs they take on. It is their personal contacts, their knowledge, their curiosity, and their ability to assemble that prepared them for this, and that will overcome the next health challenges,” says Ludivine Delattre, Head of Health, Porter Novelli.


By showing support for a global health issue that resonates so stridently with populations around the world, the industry can showcase their desire to be a partner for patients, HCPs, and governments in their healthcare struggles, as well as enable children from all walks of life to live full and healthy lives, free from the shackles of preventable NDCs.