MANILA (Reuters) – Western Pacific health ministers picked a Japanese doctor as the next regional director of the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday, spearheading a campaign to rein in lifestyle diseases linked to obesity and eradicate some tropical diseases by 2020.

Beginning next year, Hiroshima-born Takeshi Kasai, 53, will use his five-year term to tackle growing concern over lifestyle diseases, which officials blame for 80 percent of deaths among the 1.9 billion people of the western Pacific.

“Non-communicable diseases are growing,” outgoing regional director Shin Young-soo told reporters, referring to conditions related to obesity, such as diabetes and heart problems.

“This is more like lifestyle-related diseases. Those kind of things have been rising rapidly.”

Shin added, “Some people in the Pacific islands, for instance, lived on fishing but they consume a lot of junk foods because they no longer cook and the latter are readily available.”

In the past, the bulk of deaths in the region were from infectious, communicable and tropical diseases, including pandemics, such as virus outbreaks and various strains of influenza.

A top priority for Kasai, now a deputy regional director with nearly three decades in public health, is WHO’s goal of stamping out diseases such as lymphatic filariasis, also known as elephantiasis, and glaucoma or eye diseases by 2020, he said.”The real problem is how to reach vulnerable people because many areas are inaccessible and very remote,” Shin added.

Elephantiasis, a mosquito-borne disease that causes extreme swelling in the limbs, is endemic in 13 countries, among them the Philippines and Malaysia, although it was eliminated from three countries, including Vietnam, this year.

There are about 120 million disease sufferers globally, with about a quarter disfigured and incapacitated, WHO said.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)