The U.N. High Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-communicable Diseases marks only the second time in history the UN has held a special meeting on a health issue: the first was for HIV/AIDS in 2001.

Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) represent an urgent and growing global public health concern. In 2008, NCDs — diseases such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes — claimed the lives of more than 39 million people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And we know that the majority of poor people, the bottom billion, bear most of this burden in lower- and middle-income countries.

As the world’s epidemiology evolves, preventing NCDs will help to prolong life expectancy, reduce disability and extend opportunity. A healthier lifestyle delivers the biggest dividend.

The Agency’s significant investments in health systems strengthening (pdf, 3.15mb) underpin the foundation for integrated, country-led NCD prevention and control programs.

This means our current programs are building the foundation upon which future NCD efforts can be based. The same approaches that strengthen health workforces, ensure reliable supplies of vaccines and contraceptives, collect and analyze health information, and promote more effective governance, can also be adapted and applied to addressing NCDs.

President Obama’s Global Health Initiative (GHI) is building on this legacy by addressing the unique realities of each country’s health priorities and engaging appropriate parties in conversation. We are promoting prevention and control as part of a holistic approach to health by smartly integrating USG investments, focusing on innovation, discovery and new partnerships.

USAID is also identifying cost-effective interventions to address NCDs, the win-win interventions for both the MDGs and the NCDs such as integrating tobacco screening and counseling into antenatal care programs. Through GHI we are strategically integrating our program support for women and families including in family planning, maternal and child health, and nutrition programs.

We have a tremendous opportunity to guide the transformation of integrated, equitable health systems in countries we serve. But it does involve adjusting the way we work and how we position ourselves in the world of development and in the world of global health.

The Obama administration has prioritized saving lives among poor and vulnerable people, particularly mothers and children. Better access to health-care services, particularly for pregnant women and newborn babies, improved nutrition and more widespread coverage of immunization programs have led to major reductions in under-five deaths.

For mothers we are focusing on evidence-based best practices, innovations like Saving Lives at Birth, expanding access to services at the community level and via hospitals or better equipped health clinics, and re-focusing efforts on family planning.  Taken together, these efforts will significantly impact maternal mortality and improve the lives of millions around the world.