Mongolia battles rise in western non-communicable diseases with fast track healthcare

Dr. Alessandro Demaio – WNN Science & Health

Maternity ward in Khovd aimag, Mongolia
Inside a hospital room on July 28, 2009 in the Mongolian region of Khovd aimag, a child has just been delivered. This region, as well as other regions throughout Mongolia are suffering from a rise in NCDs – Non-communicable Diseases, including pregnancy preeclampsia, that are predominately known in the ‘West’. Image: Eskinder Debebe/UN

(WNN/PLOS) Ulan Bator, MONGOLIA, EASTERN ASIA: A few weeks back, at the World Health Assembly, World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim said the world is at a crossroads when it comes to health. A defining moment in history, from which our future trajectory will be decided.

Not many nations better embody this concept, than Mongolia.

Working to produce a short educational film focusing on young, inspiring health change-makers working to address the leading cause of death (which might surprise you, is heart disease) in Mongolia, I can see Mongolia is at a serious, but exciting moment in history.

In the midst of a mining boom, with economic growth eclipsing most nations, Mongolia is in the middle of rapid economic, social, cultural and health transitions. Once a small town, its capital is one of the fastest growing urban centres in the world and now accounts for more than 60% of the nation’s 2.8 million population.

A bustling city overflowing with cars, their drivers not so long ago would have been on horseback.

As a foreigner, one senses the excitement of the potential opportunities which lay ahead for this landlocked nation. Having done my PhD here over the last years, I have seen the city literally transform. Sky-scrapers and high-rises where there were gers (yurts) just a few years ago. Traffic jams and footpaths where there were neither less than a decade earlier.

The cost of living is rising rapidly, but so is the standard of living.

Speaking to two young Mongolian doctors, they explain the optimism held by the young generations. “As money floods in, so do opportunities for Mongolians. We are able to travel abroad to study, greater work opportunities and if the money is spent well – a promising future for our nation.”

Byambaa and Nara are both Mongolian born and raised. They lived through transition to a free-market economy after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have seen their capital city double in size and their national infant mortality halve in the last 20 years.

They have such inspiration and vision for their country and its people. Part of a new generation determined to capitalize on the abundant natural resources of their nation, they’re committed to seeing change that affords all Mongolians greater opportunity and prosperity.

But they also acknowledge Mongolia faces big challenges – one such example is from the quickly rising burden of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) including heart disease, diabetes, mental illness and cancers.

We are making our short film about one of these young doctors. Through her story, we hope to show the world that heart disease is not just a challenge faced by rich countries – and that many Low and Middle-Income Countries are facing a difficult double burden. NCDs and an unfinished agenda of maternal and child health challenges, infectious diseases and more.

This is a filmographic call for attention, action and investment toward this misunderstood global health issue.

But also, crucially, we will show that a young generation exists that is serious about changing the situation. Bringing health and health equity for their populations. Paving the way for a healthier future.

Profiling these motivated young people and capturing their narratives, including Byamba who has dedicated her life to becoming a cardiologist (in a country not linked with cardiovascular disease in the minds of many), we hope to rally global societal and political support for these young people, their quest and this neglected group of largely preventable diseases.


NCDs – Non-communicable Diseases are on the increase worldwide as the ‘Western’ lifestyle and diet migrates to other parts of the world. This video shows the work Dr. Demaio and his brother put into raising money for an education film series on the topic through crowdfunding at Indiegogo for a film called “NCD Free.”


Dr. Alessandro Demaio trained and worked as a medical doctor in Melbourne, Australia. Whilst working as a doctor at The Alfred Hospital, he completed a Masters in Public Health. In 2010, Alessandro relocated to Denmark and began a PhD fellowship in Global Health with the University of Copenhagen, focusing on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs). In addition to his research, Alessandro lectures for the University of Copenhagen and Charité – Universitätsmedizin, Berlin, and is a regular contributor to academic and public discourse. As a Director for the NCD Action Global Steering Committee, in 2013 Alessandro will be a Visiting Research Fellow at Harvard University.