Chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, now cause more deaths worldwide than all other diseases combined, the World Health Organization says in its first comprehensive report on the issue.

The health arm of the United Nations says chronic illnesses pose a greater threat in most areas of the world than infectious diseases, such as malaria, and tuberculosis -- even in underdeveloped countries.

Non-communicable diseases, or NCDs, accounted for 36 million, or 63 per cent, of all deaths worldwide in 2008, the report estimates.

And contrary to the popular belief that these diseases are primarily a problem of the rich, nearly 80 per cent of NCD deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, the report says.

The tragedy is that many of these deaths could have been prevented through lifestyle and government policy changes, says the WHO. They would also be prevented by improving people's access to essential health care.

"The Global Status Report on NCDs" notes as an example that almost 6 million people die from tobacco use every year -- both directly from smoking, and indirectly from second-hand smoke. By 2020, this will increase to 7.5 million -- 10 per cent of all deaths by disease worldwide.

Chronic illnesses hinder development, the report says, by taking lives prematurely and causing billions of dollars in lost national income.

"About 30 per cent of people dying from NCDs in low- and middle-income countries are aged under 60 years and are in their most productive period of life," Dr Ala Alwan, WHO Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health said in a statement.

The report notes that poverty and chronic diseases often go hand-in-hand, fuelling one another.

In many developing countries, where health care is poor, chronic illnesses are often detected late, when patients need extensive and expensive hospital care. Most of this care is unavailable, and when it is, it's often covered through out-of-pocket payments that can drive patients and their families further into poverty.

The report lists 10 action points to tackling the burden of chronic disease, including:

  • banning smoking in public places
  • enforcing tobacco advertising bans
  • restricting access to alcohol
  • stopping the inappropriate marketing of unhealthy food and beverages to children
  • cutting salt in food

A special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly is scheduled for September in New York to talk about the rising threat of NCDs.

This global status report will help to set out ways to map the epidemic, reduce its major risk factors and improve care for those who already suffer from NCDs.