Why you should care
Because these diseases aren’t just for rich and lazy Americans anymore.
When Alessandro Demaio flew to Sri Lanka in the wake of the devastating 2005 tsunami, the young doctor expected lots of traumatic injuries and disease spreading in unsanitary conditions. What he didn’t anticipate were people coming to him with diabetic complications and headaches from untreated high blood pressure. Once, he saw a man chained to a tree because he wasn’t able to get his antipsychotic meds. Demaio was used to thinking of these diseases as stereotypical of rich Westerners. “I never thought I’d see them in such a poor part of the world,” he says, speaking via video call.
Nowadays, Demaio is in the forefront of a small public health army of academics, politicians and philanthropists that aims to give these ailments their due. Conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer, they argue, are often overlooked amid broader developing-world concerns about infectious diseases like malaria and Ebola. What makes Demaio stand out is both his youth (he’s 30) and his ambition: He wants to build a new social movement among millennials that will tackle these chronic diseases around the world, using social media as a big part of his strategy. One of his nonprofits, for instance, funds the development of “shareable” films from Mongolia to Peru, runs boot camps for young leaders and even hires comedians to create health-related comedy shorts for YouTube and Vimeo. So while you may not have heard of Demaio yet, he’s on track to become one of his generation’s leading public health voices — at least, that is, until what many expect will be his eventual jump into politics.
Of course, starting a new social movement isn’t easy. The first obstacle: As causes go, a bunch of largely unrelated diseases is not the most promising option. Even describing them is hard; Demaio and others have settled on the unwieldy term “noncommunicable diseases,” or NCDs, essentially defining these conditions as the opposite of the plagues and parasites they’re not. But for the social media-minded, that’s actually an opportunity; these days you’re good to go if you’ve got a slogan that can do double duty as a hashtag. Unsurprisingly, Demaio now — among his many other efforts — heads up a millennial-targeted nonprofit called NCDFree. The name captures his conviction that NCDs “cause and entrench” poverty around the world — and it fits easily into 140 characters.
Second obstacle: What, exactly, separates a social media movement from, well, plain old slacktivism? Demaio points to the crowdsourced ideas, the boot camps, the awareness-raising festivals and the “leadership long lunches” he helps organize. “Our community is very involved,” he says. But just because Demaio looks and talks like other well-educated millennials, his message isn’t guaranteed to go viral. And the history of activism-via-branded-community, from USA for Africa and Live Aid in the 1980s to the Al Gore-inspired Live Earth in 2007, isn’t always encouraging. “The flip side of raising awareness is nothing ever happens,” says Venkat Narayan, a professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a better spokesman. With his childhood love for theater and the arts — Demaio says he was doing jazz ballet at age 5 — he has way more stage presence than most doctors have bedside manner. He coins meme-worthy slogans that would make any startup founder proud — he talks passionately about “health promotion 2.0” that will “rebrand NCDs” and “put them on the map of millennials.” With his shoulder-length mane, tortoiseshell glasses and slim-fitting T-shirts — it’s not at all surprising to learn Demaio modeled throughout med school — the Australian activist has the look to match the catchy rhetoric.
Like many millennials, Demaio has a bit of career ADD. As a postdoc fellow at Harvard University, he is publishing his fifth paper on research he conducted for his doctorate (he designed a first-of-its-kind census on NCDs in Mongolia). He moonlights as a public health professor at the University of Copenhagen, and will soon be joining the World Health Organization as well. Back in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia, Demaio heads up NCDFree, which raised $750,000 for a festival this December to encourage city residents to talk about and tackle the planet’s most pressing issues. Who says millennials are lazy?
Talk, though, is cheap, and some of these efforts can seem awfully talky. Consider the first campaign launched by NCDFree, which Demaio started with his brother after crowdraising $60,000 two years ago. Called #thefaceofNCDs (because of course hashtag), it solicited the stories of people affected by NCDs, eventually collecting about 500 of them, including some from high-profile figures like Helen Clark, the former New Zealand prime minister who now heads up the U.N. Development Program. The campaign got more than a million impressions, says Demaio.
Maybe you’re not impressed — but Demaio’s work is still important, says Narayan. The gold standard for health-related social movements is the 1980s response to HIV/AIDS, in which loud, angry and creative activists and their allies forced apathetic government officials to respond to the pandemic. NCDs are gaining more attention, but they’re still hampered by the common notion that they aren’t a major problem for the global poor. Narayan says Demaio’s campaign could help focus attention on the economic consequences of these conditions, since they strike working-age people and tax the health care systems of poorer nations.
But Demaio may have trouble wresting public attention away from panics like the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, says Shah Ebrahim, an honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Ebrahim also warns that trying to spread awareness of NCDs as a lifestyle issue “is not very compelling for young people.” Which Demaio would acknowledge, and then respond like a veteran entrepreneur: Keep trying different options until something sticks.