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What is prevention research?

Heart disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, and cancer are the leading causes of death and disability worldwide, representing 60 per cent of all deaths. Worryingly, disease rates from these chronic conditions are accelerating globally, advancing across every region and pervading all socioeconomic classes. All of these diseases are linked to preventable causes, and it is, therefore, vital to understand the best strategies for their prevention. In addition, interventions such as vaccines can offer a compelling approach to tackling chronic infectious diseases such as HIV. By developing and implementing successful, cost-effective interventions, it will be possible to reduce people’s risk of developing and dying from these major diseases.

Many of these chronic diseases come with a significant cost to healthcare services. For example, a recent estimate of the direct cost to the NHS of people being overweight and obese was £5.1 billion. By 2050 the NHS cost attributable to obesity and overweight would be £9.7 billion and the total costs would be £49.9 billion. These costs are dwarfed by the cost to society as a whole – which includes those resulting from unemployment, early retirement and associated welfare benefits. In 2007 these were estimated at an additional £11.6 billion.

Our risk of developing these chronic diseases depends on certain aspects of our lives which we can control, and also our genes and our environment. The health behaviours that contribute to developing disease include physical inactivity, poor diet, smoking, and alcohol consumption. In addition, environmental factors such as air pollution and UV exposure are also risk factors for disease, and can be considered preventable causes. But how do we translate this knowledge of risk factors into actions that will prevent disease? How do we implement interventions that are successful at preventing diseases? How do we identify the gaps in our approach to preventative public health?

The answer lies in more research. Large-scale, multi-disciplinary approaches that evaluate these interventions can indicate which prevention strategies to implement, and whether they are successful or not. To support this research, the MRC-led National Prevention Research Initiative (NPRI) was a national initiative made up of government departments, research councils, and major medical charities that worked together to encourage and initiate research into chronic disease prevention. Its core aim was to develop and implement successful, cost-effective interventions that reduced people’s risk of developing major diseases. Although this initiative has come to a close, many of its grants continue to produce outputs that have a valuable impact by influencing national policy, providing evidence for new interventions, and helping to build capacity in public health prevention research.