Nutritional Sciences Named WHO Collaborating Centre

Jan 13, 2016
Author: 
Erin Howe

Mary L'AbbeMary L'Abbe With its new designation as a World Health Organization (WHO) Collaborating Centre, the University of Toronto’s Department of Nutritional Sciences is helping countries around the world shape a healthier future.

The designation, which took effect in mid-November, makes the Department a recognized authority in the area of nutrition policy for chronic disease prevention.

“This designation signifies to the world that U of T and our Nutritional Sciences Department is a world leader in this field,” says Professor Mary L’Abbé, Chair of the Department and Director of the new Centre.

The designation will be in place through 2019. In the first two years of the partnership, L’Abbé and her Department will focus on building a sodium reduction strategy for the Pan-American region and helping the WHO set dietary guidelines for chronic disease prevention.

Around the globe, 38 million people die of chronic, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like type-2 diabetes or heart disease. Nearly three-quarters of them live in low- and middle-income countries.

“We used to think heart disease, stroke, hypertension and high cholesterol are diseases of the rich, wealthy countries, but they’re actually the main causes of death in the developing world, too,” says L’Abbé. Those countries don’t have the health care infrastructure and systems necessary to manage and treat those diseases. So, if you get diabetes in your fifties, effectively, it’s a death sentence in many developing countries.”

In addition to the human cost of disease, there are also consequences for economic development.

According to L’Abbé, one of the biggest obstacles limiting the United Nations from achieving their Millennium Development Goals is that people in what should be their most productive years — between the ages of 40 and 60 — are being lost to chronic disease. This group generally makes the largest contributions to national income generation. Furthermore, developing countries don’t have the capacity to take care of people living with these kinds of diseases.

“In Canada, we’re very good at treating people with statins and blood pressure medications. But what we need, are policies that help us prevent these problems when people are children and young adults so countries aren’t faced with the huge health care expenditures of treating these diseases later in life,” says L’Abbé.

The Department was invited to become a Collaborating Centre in acknowledgement of its significant role helping WHO develop global nutritional policies.

L’Abbé says the designation will also open the door for new collaborations with the WHO. In addition to its expertise in chronic disease prevention, faculty members within the Department conduct a breadth of research in other areas that coincide with important policy issues around the world like breastfeeding, food fortification, food security and nutrient profiling.

The designation makes the Department of Nutritional Sciences one of just 14 such centres around the world. Other Collaborating Centres for Nutrition are located in Chile, Greece, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.

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