Non-Communicable Diseases in Humanitarian Settings

The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s (HHI) program on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) in Humanitarian Settings seeks to address the growing burden of chronic disease in fragile states in order to improve humanitarian action and join international efforts to prevent, control and ultimately reduce the burden of NCDs, in particular in the world’s most vulnerable populations. 


Sylvia Kehlenbrink, MD
Endocrinology Fellow
Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

Program Gifts

If you wish to contribute to the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) Refugee NCD Health Fund, please visit

On the donation site, please select "HHI Refugee NCD Health Fund" from the drop-down menu.

"Non-communicable diseases represent a new frontier in the fight to improve global health. […] They are now responsible for more deaths than all other causes combined."

UN Secretary General Report
May 19, 2011

Global Burden of NCDs

The heavy burden of chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) globally is striking. According to the WHO, an estimated 36 million deaths were thought to be due to NCDs in 2008, accounting for 63% of the deaths that occurred globally. This number is projected to increase to 55 million by 2030 with the most rapid rise expected to occur in developing countries (1, 2). The diseases that make the largest contribution to the morbidity and mortality of NCDs are cardiovascular disease, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes. 

Humanitarian Crises

Not only are low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) disproportionately affected by NCDs, but also suffer the largest burden of humanitarian crises (6, 7). The UNHCR Global Trends Report estimates that a staggering 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes as refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2015 - the highest level ever recorded (6). Individuals with NCDs are more vulnerable in crisis situations, emergencies exacerbate NCDs and there is invariably a healthcare gap for those with chronic disease during and following emergencies (7, 8). Moreover, emergencies are increasingly becoming protracted with the average length of conflict-induced displacement being 17 years (6, 9), which results in significant health ramifications. 

NCDs in Humanitarian Crises

Despite these massive global changes, the problem of NCDs in humanitarian emergencies and conflict settings has largely been neglected. The international community is increasingly challenged with how to manage NCDs in such settings (7, 10). There is a lack of evidence-based guidelines for the management of NCDs in fragile states (7, 11) and it is unclear what interventions are effective and feasible (12). Increased advocacy, education and awareness around NCDs is needed to rally the global community to action. The burden of disease in emergencies needs to be further evaluated (8). Given largely fragmented NCD care in fragile states, improving coordination and collaboration between humanitarian agencies, academia and governments is crucial to build capacity, monitor and evaluate the delivery of NCD care. Moreover, access to essential medications, such as insulin, must be improved and the impact of NCD preventive activities and preparedness for crisis further addressed (7). 

First Steps

The impressive progress that has been made in the management of communicable diseases demonstrates that large-scale change is achievable with global collaboration, research and advocacy. Therefore, at present the HHI working-group is establishing and strengthening relationships and collaborations with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), agencies, and academic centers and gathering information and ideas from the global community on how the Harvard community can contribute to this area with the expertise and resources that are available here in Boston. The HHI working group hopes to host an international conference on the topic here in Boston in 2017. 

Affiliated Faculty and Collaborators

Brigham and Women's Hospital

Michael VanRooyen, MD, MPH
Gregg Greenough, MD, MPH
Marie McDonnell, MD

Massachusetts General Hospital

James Meigs, MD

University of Southern California

Parveen Parmar, MD, MPH

International Rescue Committee

Emmanuel d'Harcourt, MD, MPH
Ruwan Ratnayake, MHS, FETP
Lillian Kiapi, MD, MPH

University of Geneva

David Beran, MSc, PhD

Médecins Sans Frontières

Kiran Jobanputra, MD
James Smith, MD

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Bayard Roberts, PhD, MSc, MA, BA
Pablo Perel, MD, MSc, PhD

World Health Organization

Alessandro R. Demaio, MCCS, MPH, PhD

Copenhagen School of Global Health

Siri Tellier, MPH